Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Rankin/Bass Christmas Specials

If you are between the ages of 35 and 55, the chances are good that you remember many of the animated Christmas specials produced by the production company called Rankin/Bass. Even if you are not, the odds are probably good that you have at least seen Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer many times over, and perhaps Santa Claus is Comin' to Town as well. From the Sixties to the Eighties Rankin/Bass produced nearly twenty different specials pertaining to the Yuletide. When it came to animated holiday entertainment, Rankin/Bass was the leader in the field.

Rankin/Bass was not founded to produce Christmas specials. And, in fact, they produced much, much more than that, including the King Kong cartoon of the Sixties, the Eighties cartoon Thundercats, the movie Mad Monster Party, and the animated feature film version of The Hobbit. And they produced specials for other holidays as well, among them Mad, Mad, Mad Monsters and Here Comes Peter Cottontail. That having been said, I think it was safe to say that it was their Christmas specials for which they were best known.

Arthur Rankin Jr. was the son of actor Arthur Rankin and grandson of actor Harry Davenport. Starting off at ABC as graphic designer, by 1952 he had founded his own company for producing commercials. It was through his work in commercials that he met Jules Bass. In the Fifties Bass was working for Gardner Advertising, a company which often did business with Rankin. In 1955 the two of them founded the company Videocrafts Incorporated, later renamed Videocraft International and still later Rankin/Bass Productions.

Initially, Videocraft only produced television commercials, but in 1960 they moved into the production of TV series. Videocraft's first project was a series of five minutes shorts made for television called The New Adventures of Pinocchio. Like much of the work that would later come out of Rankin/Bass, The New Adventures of Pinocchio used a stop motion process called Animagic that was quite similar to the same process George Pal used on his Puppetoons shorts. They followed The New Adventures of Pinocchio with another series of shorts called Tales of the Wizard of Oz. Tales of the Wizard of Oz was loosely based on the works of L. Frank Baum, the source material which would also provide the basis for the 1965 Rankin/Bass TV special Return to Oz (in fact, some character designs made for the series would be used in the special). Unlike the vast majority of Rankin/Bass's work in the Sixties, Tales of the Wizard of Oz was created using traditional cel animation rather than stop motion.

It would be the same year that Return to Oz aired (by now Videocraft Incorporated had been renamed Videocraft International), 1964, that Rankin/Bass would enter the field that would make them famous, that of Christmas specials. As it turns out, one of Arthur Rankin Jr.'s neighbours was Johnny Marks, the man who wrote "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" and a number of other Yuletide classics. Rankin approached Marks about using the song as a basis for a holiday special produced using stop motion animation. Initially Marks was apprehensive, fearing the special could harm future sales of the classic song, but eventually he agreed to the idea. In fact, he provided every other song for the special. The special followed the plot of the song very closely and even expanded on it. When it aired as part of The General Electric Fantasy Hour on NBC on December 6, 1964, it was an immediate hit. It has aired during the holiday season every year ever since.

Despite the success of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Videocraft International did not rush to make more Christmas specials. In the mid-Sixties their projects included the special The Ballad of Smokey the Bear, the feature film Willy McBean and his Magic Machine, and the Sixties cartoon King Kong, among others. It was a full three years after Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer aired that another Rankin/Bass Christmas special would air, in this case an adaptation of Charles Dickens' The Cricket on the Hearth. The Cricket on the Hearth is notable for being another early piece of Rankin/Bass cel animation. Sadly, it was also one of their less successful products from the Sixties. Airing in 1967, it disappeared for decades before resurfacing on video.

Since around 1966 the Videocraft logo had included credits for Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass. It was in 1968 that the company adopted the name by which it became best known, Rankin/Bass Productions, and adopted the logo with which most of us are familiar (see above). It was also that year the company would have its second hit Christmas special (The Cricket on the Hearth having not done particularly well). Like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, The Little Drummer Boy was based on a hit song. Also like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, it was made using stop motion animation. That having been said, The Little Drummer Boy is different from almost every other Christmas special produced by Rankin/Bass. Its tone is very Christian (Aaron, the drummer boy, plays his drum for the baby Jesus). It includes a bit of violence (Arab marauders kill Aaron's family). And its portrayal of the Arab villains is hardly what one would consider politically correct these days. While it would air for many years on network television, it would eventually leave the networks for syndication. One has to wonder if its overly religious tone, violence, and what some might consider offensive portrayals of Arabs didn't play a role in it leaving the networks.

In 1969 Rankin/Bass would follow the success of both Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and The Little Drummer Boy up with an adaptation of yet another Christmas song. Frosty the Snowman followed the plot of the song quite closely, although expanding a bit on the song's plot in which a snowman comes to life. While this gave it something in common with both Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and The Little Drummer Boy, Frosty the Snowman was shot using traditional cel animation. Reportedly, Rankin wanted the cartoon to have the look of an old time Christmas card, even hiring greeting card Paul Coker Jr. for the project. It was perhaps for this reason that it was made using cel animation. That having been said, contrary to many reports, it was not the first time Rankin/Bass used traditional cel animation. It is predated not only by Tales of the Wizard of Oz in 1961, but by Return to Oz in 1964 and the King Kong cartoon in 1966. It is not even their first holiday special shot using cel animation (that would be The Cricket on the Hearth, which first aired in 1967). That having been said, it is arguably the second most successful Christmas special they ever made. It first aired on CBS on December 7, 1969 and has aired on network television every year ever since.

Although many people tend to think of the Sixties when they think of Rankin/Bass, arguably their most active period with regards to Christmas specials was the Seventies. That having been said, it can also be argued that it was during this decade that the company saw some decline in quality, the Seventies specials not quite matching those made in the Sixties. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that Rankin/Bass began making more and more sequels to their earlier work. Between them, Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer would have two sequels apiece (although they admittedly shared one).

Regardless, Rankin/Bass would start the Seventies off on a high point. In 1970 ABC first aired Santa Claus is Comin' to Town, a special based on the hit song and basically telling the origin of Santa Claus. The special would mark the first time that Mickey Rooney did the voice for Santa Claus in a Rankin/Bass production. He would repeat the role in more specials. Santa Claus is Comin' to Town first aired on ABC on December 14, 1970. Although it would not see the success of either Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer or Frosty the Snowman, it would air on network television for many years to come.

Rankin/Bass would go four years without producing another Christmas special. When new Rankin/Bass material debuted in 1974, it would be in the form of two different specials. Today 'Twas the Night Before Christmas is largely forgotten. A half hour special done in cel animation, the special actually owed very little the classic poem of the same name. Instead the plot centred around a small town which finds itself boycotted by Santa after a mouse writes him a nasty letter. 'Twas the Night Before Christmas would not see the repeated airings of other Rankin/Bass specials. It is available on DVD.

The other special that aired in 1974 would see a bit more success. The Year Without a Santa Claus was based on the novel by Phyllis McGinley and once more featured Mickey Rooney as Santa Claus. The special's plot centred around a sick and disenchanted Santa, who considers calling off his usual Yuletide trip around the world. First airing on December 10, 1974, it would not become a holiday tradition the way that Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer or Frosty the Snowman has. That having been said, it would develop something of a cult following. In the movie Batman and Robin, Mr. Freeze even tries to teach his henchmen the Snow Miser song (Snow Miser being one of the characters in the special). In 2006 NBC aired a live action remake of the special that was considerably different from the original.

In 1975 another Rankin/Bass special made using Animagic aired on NBC, The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow. The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow was not the story of Jesus's birth, the title referring instead to a Christmas pageant put on by children in the special. Although it originally aired on NBC, it would find a home on CBS for several years.

Nineteen seventy six should perhaps be regarded as a turning point for Rankin/Bass. It was that year in which sequels to the company's classic specials were first aired. Indeed, three new Rankin/Bass specials debuted in 1976 and all three were sequels. The first to air was Frosty's Winter Wonderland, debuting on December 2, 1976. Made in cel animation like the original, the plot introduced the character of Jack Frost as well as a wife for Frosty. As the title indicates, it included the song "Winter Wonderland."

Rudolph's Shiny New Year was the second to air, on December 10, 1976. The special centred upon Rudolph seeking out the next Baby New Year before midnight on New Year's Eve. Rudolph was the only one of the characters from the original to appear in this sequel. Even more curious is the fact that, while Rudolph was portrayed as an adult reindeer at the end of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, in Rudolph's Shiny New Year he is once more portrayed as a youngster. Rudolph's Shiny New Year would not become the Yuletide tradition which the original was.

The final Rankin/Bass sequel to air in 1976 was The Little Drummer Boy Book II. Although not quite highly regarded as the original, it is perhaps regarded more highly than the other sequels which Rankin/Bass made. The special included characters from the original and, furthermore, the characters looked as they did in the original. Like The Little Drummer Boy, The Little Drummer Boy Book II was based on a song, in this case "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." Sadly, it would not be repeated every year for literally years as other Rankin/Bass specials have been.

The next Rankin/Bass holiday special would not be a sequel, although it has also been largely forgotten. Nestor, The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey was made using Animagic and centred around Nestor, a donkey who winds up in the stable in which Jesus is born. Nestor, The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey first aired on December 3, 1977. Although now highly regarded by many Rankin/Bass fans, it did not become an annual Yuletide tradition.

Nineteen seventy nine would see one of the strangest developments in the history of Rankin/Bass and its strong link to the holiday season. Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July was not only a sequel to both Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, but it was also a feature film shot in Animagic. Odder still, it centred on July 4th and was released to theatres on July 1, 1979. Released in the middle of summer and featuring characters characters associated with Christmas, Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July died at the box office. It would find a second life on television, airing during the holiday season. Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July would be historic in that it marked the first time Frosty was portrayed using stop motion animation and the last time that Rudolph was portrayed using such.

It was also in 1979 that Rankin/Bass created a special centred around the character of Jack Frost. Jack Frost had appeared previously in Frosty's Winter Wonderland and Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July. Jack Frost gave the character centre stage. Shot in Animagic, the plot centred around Jack Frost falling in love with a mortal woman. It first aired on December 13, 1979.

The Eighties would see Rankin/Bass making fewer Christmas specials and even stop making them for a time. The reason for this is simply that throughout the Seventies and into the Eighties, the networks ceased airing as many Yuletide specials as they once did. With less demand for holiday specials, Rankin/Bass had no need to release a new special once year as they had in the Seventies.

For their first special of the Eighties, Rankin/Bass would turn to a familiar character. The first series the company had ever produced was The New Adventures of Pinocchio, so it should have been no surprise when they produced the special Pinocchio's Christmas. The special involved the puppet's efforts to earn money for present for Gepetto. Pinocchio's Christmas first aired on December 13, 1980.

In 1981 Rankin/Bass followed Pinocchio's Christmas with The Leprechauns' Christmas Gold. Also made in stop motion animation, The Leprechauns' Christmas Gold was a half hour special based in Irish folklore, complete with leprechauns and a banshee. Reaction to The Leprechauns' Christmas Gold has always been divided. There are those who feel it is one of the worst Rankin/Bass special, although those who enjoy Irish folklore seem to have a greater appreciation of it.

It would be be four years before Rankin/Bass would produce another holiday special. When they did, they would return to the works of L. Frank Baum. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus was based on the Baum novel of the same name. Only an hour long, the special abbreviated much the novel's plot and made some changes to it. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus is one of the few Rankin/Bass specials that actually created some controversy, as Fundamentalist Christians claimed the special was "Satanic (an accusation also thrown at Baum's Oz books)." The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus is also unique among Rankin/Bass Christmas specials in that it is the only one which does not have a narrator. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus first aired on CBS on December 17, 1985. Perhaps due to the fact that the networks were airing fewer holiday specials in the Eighties and Nineties and perhaps due to anger on the part of Fundamentalists Christians, it would not see the repeat viewing of other Rankin/Bass specials. Despite the controversy, it remains one of the best regarded of Rankin/Bass's later holiday specials.

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus would be the last Rankin/Bass holiday special aired for some time. In fact, it would be one of the last Rankin/Bass specials for some time. An adaptation of The Wind in the Willows in cel animation, first aired in 1987, would the last Rankin/Bass production for several years. Although the company continued to exist, it entered a period of dormancy when it was simply producing nothing. After fourteen years in which Rankin/Bass produced nothing, they returned in 2001 with another holiday special based on a Christmas song. Santa Baby. Unlike the majority of classic Rankin/Bass specials, Santa Baby was made with cel animation. The special owed very little to the song, in which a woman lists the extravagant gifts she wants Santa to bring her. Instead the special focused on a songwriter seeking to write a hit song. Despite featuring the vocal talents of Eartha Kitt (originator of the hit song), Patti LaBelle, and Gregory Hines, Santa Baby proved to be something of a disappointment to Rankin/Bass fans. It first aired on Fox on December 17, 2001 and has not aired very often ever since.

Since Santa Baby, Rankin/Bass has not produced anything else, although the company continues to exist. Here I should point out that while the 2001 computer animated, direct to video sequel to Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer & the Island of Misfit Toys, utilised the characters and mythos from the original special, Rankin/Bass had nothing to do with it. I have no idea if Rankin/Bass has any new projects in production (Wikipedia claims they have a new holiday special, Rudolph vs. Frosty, on the boards, but I have found nothing else about it on the web, so it might just be a joke). Regardless, they do maintain a presence on the web.

Since its beginnings as Videocraft Incorporated in 1955, Rankin/Bass became a major contributor to Anglo-American pop culture in the Sixties and Seventies. They also became the company most associated with holiday specials. Indeed, it is perhaps a mark of the influence of Rankin/Bass that many of their specials continue to air on television (on the broadcast networks and ABC Family), decades after they were made. The influence of Rankin/Bass can also be seen in many of the commercials which have aired this year. An AFLAC commercial airing this season utilises the characters from the classic special Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, done in the style of Rankin/Bass. Even when adverts don't outright use characters from the Rankin/Bass, they often pay homage to the company's Animagic style, from Mac computers to Alltel to Big Lots. There's even a Missouri lottery commercial airing at the moment featuring an "Island of Messed Up Gifts," a clear parody of the Island of Misfit Toys from Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, shot in a style reminiscent of the Rankin/Bass specials. As to parodies, there have been many over the years, from the shorts made by Corky Quakenbush for Mad TV to Robert Smigel's TV Funhouse takeoff on the old specials, aired on Saturday Night Live, in which Santa refuses to deliver toys to states that voted Republican. Regardless of whether Rankin/Bass ever produces another Yuletide special, the company has left a lasting legacy in Anglo-American culture with regards to holiday specials that will probably never be matched.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Frank Capra Jr. and Jack Linkletter Pass On

I was meaning to make a Yule themed post today, but it seems that two more famous people have passed on. Both were the sons of more famous fathers and both followed their father's footsteps in the same industries.

Movie producer Frank Capra Jr. was the son of the famous director Frank Capra, perhaps best known for the Yuletide classic It's a Wonderful Life. He died Wednesday at the age of 73 from prostate cancer.

Although the son of a famous filmmaker, Frank Capra Jr. did not plan to be a movie producer. He attended the California Institute of Technology and graduated from Pomona College with a degree in geology. Despite this, he soon found himself in the business of film making. At Hughes Tool Company, he made films which documented the various research programmes conducted by the company. Capra later joined the United States Army and served in the Signals Corps.

Capra's first experience with commercial media would be working on such TV shows as The Rifleman, Wanted Dead or Alive, and Dennis the Menace. He was a second unit director on the movie Pocketful of Miracles. Unlike his father, Capra's mark in movies would be made as a producer rather than a director. He earned his first producer credit as an associate producer on the sci-fi film Marooned in 1969. Beginning with Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Capra produced the last few sequels to Planet of the Apes. He would go onto produce such films as The Black Marble, Firestarter, and Waterproof. Capra was president of EUE/Screen Gems, the biggest studio in the United States outside of Hollywood.

Although not nearly as famous as his father, Frank Capra Jr. did contribute to the medium of film through producing such movies as the Planet of the Apes films and The Black Marble. His company, EUE/Screen Gems, has been involved in movies such as 28 Days and TV shows such as One Tree Hill.

Like Frank Capra Jr., Jack Linkletter was the son of a famous man. In his case, he was the son of legendary TV host Art Linkletter. He died Tuesday at the age of 70 from lymphoma.

Although Jack Linkletter would host many shows in his lifetime, his biggest impact on pop culture came when he was still a child. When he was five years old and in kindergarten, his father decided to interview him. Armed with a tape recorder, Art Linkletter asked young Jack how he liked school. Jack's response was that he did not like school, "Because I can’t read and I can’t write and they won’t let me talk." Art Linkletter's impromptu interview with his son inspired routine "Kids Say the Darnedest Things," long a segment on the show House Party and at various points a show of its own.

Jack Linkletter followed in his father's footsteps while still a teenager. When he was only 15 he was host of an interview show on CBS Radio and later the host of Teen Time on the same network. Linkletter was only twenty one years old and attending the University of Southern California when he became the host of Haggis Baggis, a summer replacement game show on NBC in 1958. At only 22 he was host of the daytime show On the Go. In 1962 he became the host of Here's Hollywood, a celebrity interview show. Jack Linkletter's most famous gigs would both be in the Sixties. In 1963 he was the host of Hootenanny ABC's attempt to cash in on the folk music craze that would be ended by the British Invasion. From 1964 to 1966 he was the host of the Miss Universe broadcasts. He would later serve as a co-host on House Party with his father in the late Sixties. In the Seventies he was the host of the daytime series America Alive. Jack Linkletter also served as the president of Linkletter Enterprises, the family's real estate development.

Jack Linkletter often joked that he was often hired when his employers could not afford his father. In truth, however, I always thought that Jack Linkletter was a genial and talented host in his own right. He could make even the most unwatchable show bearable to watch (a case in point being America Alive. While he was never as famous as his father, Jack Linkletter was certainly a good host in his own right.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Jack Zander R.I.P.

Animator Jack Zander, who helped develop Jerry of Tom and Jerry fame and pioneered animated commercials, died Monday at the age of 99.

Zander was born Arthur Jack Zander in Kalamazoo, Michigan. When he was in his teens, his family moved to Hollywood. He had planned to be an artist and attended the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. It was while he was at Chouinard that he found the career of his lifetime. The school received a call from the son of Western novelist Zane Grey, Roemer Grey, who had was founding an animation studio. The receptionist asked Zander and his friend Pete Burness (who would go onto work on many of the Mr. Magoo shorts and for Jay Ward), "Are you fellows animators?" The two of them being in dire need of jobs, they both answered, "Yes." At the time Zander didn't even know what an animator was. At Roemer Grey's studio Zander learned from two experienced animators, the brothers Tom and Bob McKimson (both would later work at Warner Brothers).

Grey's studio went out of business rather swiftly, leaving Zander out of work. In the following years Zander would work at Warner Brothers, the Van Buren studio, and Terrytoons. Eventually, he found himself at MGM. It was while he was at MGM that Zander helped Joseph Barbera develop the Tom and Jerry series, animating the mouse Jerry (called "Jinks" in the first cartoon) in the debut short of the series, "Puss Gets the Boot." During World War II Zander served as part of the Army Signal Corps. In the Signal Corps he made animated training films.

Following the war Zander left theatrical animation for the new field of animating commercials for television. He made his first TV commercial in 1947, an advert for Chiclets gum. In 1954 he founded his first animation studio, Pelican Films. Among his most popular commercials were those for Peils Beer, featuring animated brothers Bert and Harry Piels (voiced by comedy team Bob and Ray). Pelican Films lasted from 1954 to 1986, going out of business only after an ill planned foray into live action. In 1970 Zander founded Animation Parlour. Zander would go onto direct an episode of the ABC Superstar Movie, Popeye Meets the Man Who Hated Laughter (the film featured several King Features characters, including Hi and Lois, Snuffy Smith, Mandrake the Magician, and so on). He also directed the TV special Gnomes (which was nominated for an Emmy). Zander also directed the title sequence for the earliest seasons of Saturday Night Live, as well as the Tippi Turtle segments of the show.

Jack Zander may not be as famous as other names from the Golden Age of Animation, but his contributions to the medium are no less great. Indeed, he is as responsible for the success of Tom and Jerry as either William Hanna or Joseph Barbera, having worked on the first several cartoons of the series. He was also a pioneer in the field of animated commercials. Over the years he worked for such brands as Alka-Seltzer,Camel cigarettes, Colgate, Crest, Freakies breakfast cereal, Green Giant, and Shell Oil. During his career in commercials, he directed over 5000 adverts. While he may not be as famous as Chuck Jones or Tex Avery, he certainly made important contributions to the field of animation.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Dan Fogelberg and Floyd Red Crow Westerman Pass On

Cancer has taken two famous artists from our midst recently. One was soft rock balladeer Dan Fogelberg. The other was singer/actor/Native American rights activist Floyd Red Crow Westerman.

Dan Fogelberg died Sunday after a long struggle against prostate cancer. He was only 56 years old.

Dan Fogelberg was born in Peoria, Illinois on August 13, 1951. The son of a high school band director (his father) and a pianist (his mother), Folgelberg was exposed to music at an early age. He joined his first band when he was only 14. He was later a member of the band The Coachmen, who released two singles in 1967. Upon graduating high school in 1969, Fogelberg attended the University of Illinois in Champaign, Illinois. It was there that Irving Azoff, manager for such artists as The Eagles, REO Speedwagon, and Steely Dan found him. Fogelberg soon found himself a session musician for artists such as Buffy Saint-Marie, Jackson Browne, and Van Morrison. He released his first album, Home Free, in 1972 to only middling success. It would be his second album, Souvenirs, that would put Fogelberg on the map. The album did fairly well and produced a top forty single in the form of "Part of the Plan."

While his next album, Captured Angel, did not produce any top 40 singles ,it did solidify his status as one of top artists of the soft rock/folk rock genre. During his peak period in the late Seventies and early Eighties, Folgelberg produced such hit singles as "The Power of Gold," "Longer," "Same Old Lang Syne," "Leader of the Band," and "Make Love Stay." Folgelberg's career slowed down after his 1985 album High Country Snows, although he continued to record and tour. His last album, Full Cicle, was released in 2003.

Soft rock not exactly being my cup of tea, I cannot say I was ever a huge fan of Dan Fogelberg. That having been said, I think there is no denying his talent and his influence. The sounds of Dan Fogelberg can be heard in the music of artists as diverse as Allison Kraus and Jonathan Coulton. His song "Longer" has become something of a standard at weddings. And his songs continue to be played on adult contemporary radio stations throughout the United States.

Floyd Red Crow Westerman died Thursday, December 6, from leukaemia. He was 71 years old.

Floyd Red Crow Westerman or Kanghi Duta (his Dakota name, literally "Red Crow") was born on the Lake Traverse Reservation in South Dakota as a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Dakota Sioux. As a child he attended the Wahpeton Boarding School. It was there that he met Dennis Banks, co-founder of the American Indian Movement (AIM). He attended Northern State College, South Dakota where he majored in Speech, Theater and Art. As a young man Westerman made a career for himself as a country/folk singer. His first album, Custer Died for Your Sins (the title taken from the book by Vine Deloria Jr.) was released in 1969. Westerman followed Custer Died for Your Sins with four more albums (Indian Country in 1970, The Land is Your Mother in 1982, Oyate, with Tony Hymas, in 1990, and A Tribute to Johnny Cash in 2006).

Although he started as a singer, Westerman is perhaps best known for his career as an actor. His acting career began with a guest appearance on MacGyver in 1988. he soon found himself in feature films, his first movie role being the father of Lou Diamond Philips in Renegades in 1989. His best known role would come in 1190 with the release of Dances with Wolves, in which he played Ten Bears. Over the years Westerman's film appearances would include the Shaman in the Jim Morrison biopic The Doors, Chairman Pico in Naturally Native, and Chief Eagle Horn in Hidalgo. Westerman also made several notable apperances on television. He was a regular on Walker, Texas Ranger and played a recurring character on Northern Exposure, The X-Files and Dharma and Greg. In choosing the parts he played on both television and movies, Westerman avoided playing any sort of Native American stereotypes.

Westerman was also active as an advocate for Native American rights. He often worked with the American Indian Movement. He testified at the World Uranium Hearing in Salzburg in 1992. He founded the Eyapaha Institute, a non-profit group which promotes the use of mass media as a tool to address issues of concern to indigenous peoples worldwide.

There can be no doubt that Floyd Red Crow Westerman was one of the most visible and most famous Native American actors of our time. His talent was considerable, as he played roles ranging from Ten Bears in Dancing with Wolves to Chairman Pico in Naturally Native. He was also a very talented singer and musician. Over the years he worked with everyone from Buffy Saint-Marie to James Browne. Westerman was no simple performer, however, as he was also one of the best known Native American activists. In fact, his work in both recording and acting was an extension of his activism. While I cannot say that I agree with every idea Westerman expressed, I must say I admire him for having the courage to espouse him. Indeed, my brother had the opportunity to speak with Westerman on the phone several times. According to my brother, Westerman was always a perfect gentleman, blessed with both intelligence and a great sense of humour. Talented and outspoken, I am sure he will be remembered for a long time to come.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

"Don't Shoot Me Santa Claus": Bizarre Christmas Songs

"Father Christmas, give us some money..."
("Father Christmas," The Kinks)

"So come all ye unfaithful
Don't be left out in the cold
You don't need no invitation, no...
Your ticket is your soul"
("Christmas with the Devil," Spinal Tap)

Among the most popular holiday singles released this year is a song called "Don't Shoot Me Santa" by The Killers. Released November 27, 2007, it is far from the typical Yuletide carol. Essentially, the song is couched in the mythology of the Western, centring on a boy, who has been "killing just for fun" and must now pay the price for his crimes by way of Santa and his gun. Last year's holiday single by The Killers, "A Great Big Sled," was unusual, but not quite so outré as this one. At any rate, bizarre Christmas songs are nothing new. In fact, they have been around since the better part of the 20th century.

Indeed, in some respects "Don't Shoot Me Santa" is not even that unusual given the fact that violence has played a role in some holiday songs in the past. Perhaps the most famous example is The Kinks' attack on Yuletide greed, "Father Christmas." The song centres on a poor fellow playing Father Christmas who finds himself beaten up and robbed by street punks. While the song is bit left of centre compared to most Christmas songs, it does have an important message about remembering the less fortunate during the holiday season. Not every Yuletide carol has such a message, as is the case with the notorious "Shouldn't Have Given Him a Gun for Christmas" by Wall of Voodoo. The song details the consequences of giving a father a few bricks shy of a load a weapon for the holiday. In "The Night Santa Went Crazy" by Weird Al Yankovic, it is the big man himself who commits a holiday massacre. In the song Santa gets drunk and then proceeds to shoot up his workshop. In the end he winds up in Federal prison (I didn't think the United States had jurisdiction over the North Pole...). While "The Night Santa Went Crazy" is a violent song, its level of violence is actually less than that of Weird Al's more famous holiday tune, "Christmas at Ground Zero." Indeed, "Christmas at Ground Zero" is violence on a massive scale, as nuclear missiles are launched just in time for Christmas Eve.

Of course, not every Christmas song in which someone is hurt is the mayhem necessarily intentional. This is the case of "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" by Elmo and Patsy. The song centres on Grandma who, drunk on too much eggnog, gets run over by Santa's sleigh. First released in 1979, the song has become something of a holiday standard, although I cannot fathom why. I must confess that it is one of the few Christmas songs that I actively hate.

Given the spirit of the Yuletide, it might seem odd that violence would be the subjet of some songs, but I don't think the same argument can be made for sex. At least in northern Europe, the northern United States, and Canada, Christmas is often a time when it is very, very cold. Indeed, there is sometimes even snow and ice covering the outdoors. For that reason, the holiday season might seem a very good time to curl up with some special someone next to the fire. Romance has played a role in several holiday songs over the years. In fact, even though they are played during the Yuletide, some aren't even Christmas songs, but merely songs about being with the one you love during the winter--"Winter Wonderland" and "Baby, It's Cold Outside" are two examples of this. Still, there are outright Christmas songs that reference romance during the holidays. "Merry Christmas, Baby" by blues legend Charles Brown was first released in 1947 and concerns spending the holiday with the woman he loves. A more famous Christmas song with romantic content is "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," originally performed by Jimmy Boyd and released in 1952. The song centres on a kid who witnesses his mother kissing old "St. Nick (presumably his father impersonating the big guy in red)." "Christmas All Over Again" by Tom Petty celebrates the holiday season in general, although it puts emphasis on mistletoe and warm bodies.

From romance it is simply a small step to outright sex. A prime example of this is "Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'" by rhythm and blues artist Albert King. First released in 1973, the song centres on the father of a family (the "Santa Claus" of the title) who wants more than kissing on the holiday. At least the Santa Claus of "Santa Claus Wants some Lovin'" is in a committed relationship. This is not the case of the "Santa" in "Back Door Santa" by blues artist Clarence Carter, first released in 1968. It would seem that the Back Door Santa is not concerned with simply curling up by the fire with the one he loves--he has to keep all the "girls happy, while the boys are out to play..." As sexually suggestive as "Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'" and "Back Door Santa" are, they are nothing compared to "Mistress for Christmas" by AC/DC. Essentially, the song is a holiday wish for, well, a mistress for Christmas (which, when I stop to think about it, would actually be a fairly good present for the holiday...).

If asking for a mistress for Christmas sounds unusual, it is perhaps not as odd as some of the gifts requested in some songs. Songs featuring unusual Christmas wishes have been around at least since the Forties. In fact, the earliest may well have been released in 1948--"All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth," originally performed by the great Spike Jones. A novelty tune, the song centres on a little tyke missing his his two front teeth and wanting new ones as his present for the holiday. If wanting one's two front teeth for Christmas seems odd, it is perhaps not as strange as the gift requested in "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas." Originally performed by eleven year old Gayla Peevey and released in 1952, the title pretty much sums up the song. A little girl wants a hippo for Christmas. Oddly enough, I remember several years ago when the song became something of a sensation on our local oldies station (I must admit, after a while I got tired of hearing it...).

Of course, if asking for a mistress, one's two front teeth, or a hippo for Christmas seems odd, they are nowhere as strange as the gift requested in the song "I Want an Alien for Christmas" by power pop band Fountains of Wayne. In the song a kid asks Santa for a real, live alien for Christmas--he doesn't want a bike, ugly sweaters, or a basketball. At least in most songs about Christmas wishes people are content to ask for just one thing. In the classic "Santa Baby," first released in 1953, Eartha Kitt asks for a whole list of expensive items, including a '54 convertible, a yacht, and the deed to a platinum mine. Given the sheer nature of Eartha Kitt's voice (she could sound sexy reading a phone book...), I suppose this song could also count as one of the more sexually suggestive Yuletide carols out there.

While there are Christmas songs asking for odd gifts, there are also Christmas songs that are just plain odd. Novelty songs, from "All I Want for Christmas Are My Two Front Teeth" to "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" have been a part of the holiday for years. Perhaps none has been more persistent than "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)" by The Chipmunks. Ross Bagdasarian, Sr. had first sped up the playback on a record with his song "Witch Doctor," released earlier in 1958. For "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)," he went even further, creating the three different characters (Alvin, Simon, and Theodore), each with his own voice. Not only did "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)" become a #1 single in 1958, it also launched the career of The Chipmunks. Here I must note that The Chipmunks were not the cutesy, politically correct creatures of the Eighties cartoons. In fact, originally Alvin was the Bart Simpson of his day (I've no idea if the new movie returns them to their former glory, but I rather doubt it...).

Another Yuletide novelty song was actually a sequel to a novelty song for another holiday--Halloween. Bobby "Boris" Pickett had a smash hit with the song "Monster Mash" in 1962. Indeed, the song has become a standard with regards to the Halloween celebration. That same year Pickett recorded a followup for the Yuletide season entitled "Monster's Holiday." The song went to #30 on the Billboard singles chart before disappearing entirely. Another holiday sequel to another novelty song has fared a bit better over the years. In 1966 The Royal Guardsmen had a hit with "Snoopy Vs. the Red Baron," a song based on Snoopy's imaginary battles with the German flying ace in the panels of Peanuts. They followed up the song in 1967 with a holiday themed sequel, "Snoopy's Christmas." This song not only has its roots in the comic strip Peanuts, but in an actual historical event--in 1914 British and German soldiers declared a "Christmas truce" and celebrated the holiday together. In the song, the Red Baron (it was the German soldiers who came up with the idea of the truce) calls over to Snoopy and the two celebrate the holiday together. It has become a regular at the holiday season ever since its release in 1967.

Of course, Snoopy is not the only dog in a Christmas song. "Christmas is Going to the Dogs" by The Eels relates the holiday from a dog's point of view. It would seem it is a joyous time for pets as well. Holiday cheer is not to be found in "Christmas with the Devil" by Spinal Tap. The notorious heavy metal band posits a holiday in which Satan has taken over... So far the songs I've mentioned here are not meant to be taken seriously. This is not the case with Irish musician Chris de Burgh's "A Spaceman Came Travelling." In the song an alien positions his spaceship above a small village in Israel where it is seen as the star of Bethlehem. De Burgh plays the song straight, even though I suspect it is hard for anyone else to take it seriously...

While the various novelty songs celebrate the joy of the season, there are songs that recognise that there are those who are not happy during the Yuletide. The theme appears in the aforementioned "Father Christmas" and several other songs. The Fountains of Wayne sing of the plight of a department store Santa in "The Man in the Santa Suit," who takes the job simply because he needs the money. Of course, the life of the Man in the Santa Suit is a walk in the park compared to the protagonist of The Ramones' "Merry Christmas, I Don't Want to Fight Tonight." It is Christmas and he is apparently on the verge of losing the woman he loves. It is even worse for the heroine of "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)" by Darlene Love. The single greatest holiday rock song of all time, "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)" inverts the imagery of Christmas, using the snow falling and the bells ringing as symbols of sorrow and not joy as a woman pleads for her lover to return to her for the holiday.

Hard as it is to believe, there are actually holiday songs more depressing than "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)." In "Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis" by Tom Waits, the hooker of the title relates how she is broke and headed to prison. Even this is not as depressing as the situation in "Dead by Xmas" by Hanoi Rocks. Not only is the protagonist of the song dying during the holiday season, but the woman he loves is with another man.

Given the fact that not everyone enjoys the holidays, it should come as no surprise that there are even songs that are outright against the holiday. In "Christmas My Arse," English actor Ricky Tomlinson bewails the fact that the holidays never quite live up to their hype (among other things, "there aint no snow" and "The crackers don't bang..."). "Christmas My Arse" is nowhere as virulent as a song by punk band Fear. "F*** Christmas" is a simple statement that for the singer Christmas is "..not so great."

While rather odd, off the wall songs have been a part of the holiday season for years, it seems to me that they are not appreciated by everyone. Every year KOMU shows clips of the various school choirs performing holiday songs after their newscasts. This year someone complained about one of the choirs performing "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer," thinking the song hardly suitable for the holiday. I must admit that I can understand the complaints about many of these songs. There are those for whom Christmas is an important religious occasion and it is natural that they might want to see it treated more solemnly and respectfully.

That having been said, the Yuletide has always been a time of joy, fun, and frolic, even before there was a Christmas, in the days when the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings celebrated Géol or Jól respectively (Yule in Old English and Old Norse). Nearly since the beginning of comedy, humour has been derived from contradiction (sex and violence in songs about a holiday associated with love and joy), exaggeration (requests for extravagant gifts, like hippos and aliens), absurdity (Chipmunks singing a Christmas song), and misunderstanding (not realising your mother isn't really kissing Santa Claus, but your father in a Santa suit). Given the nature of comedy, it is going to push the boundaries of respectability a times and even offend a few people. As the Yuletide has always been a time for having fun and enjoying oneself, I think there is a need for funny, even bizarre holiday songs, even if they aren't appreciated by everyone. For myself it is part of the fun and frolic that is all too necessary to the holiday season. Granted, I might hate "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer," but I am not going to object to it on thematic grounds.