Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Little Drummer Boy: The Rankin/Bass Special

Today when people under the age of 30 think of classic Rankin/Bass Yuletide specials, it is most likely to be the 1964 classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or the 1969 cel animated  Frosty the Snowman. Those over 30 might think of other Rankin/Bass holiday specials as well, including Santa Claus is Coming to Town and The Year Without a Santa Claus. Among the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials that might come to the minds of those over 30 is one that is largely forgotten today. While only those of a certain age might remember The Little Drummer Boy, in its day it was one of Rankin/Bass's most popular holiday specials. In fact, for a time it might have been second only to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in popularity.

Like Rudoph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Little Drummer Boy utilised stop-motion animation. And like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, it was based on a popular song ("The Little Drummer Boy"). The song originated in 1941 as "The Carol of the Drum", written by Katherine Davis. Initially "The Carol of the Drum" met with little success. It was even recorded by The Trapp Family Singers in 1955 to little notice. In 1957 "The Carol of the Drum" was recorded by the Jack Halloran Singers for their album Christmas Is A-Comin'. Christmas Is A-Comin' was released on Dot Records.

It was Henry Onorati, a producer at Dot Records, who brought "The Carol of the Drum" to the attention of Harry Simeone.  Harry Simeone took Jack Halloran's arrangement and made further changes to it. He also retitled the song "The Little Drummer Boy". It was recorded by the Harry Simeone Chorale and appeared on their 1958 album Sing We Now of Christmas, released on 20th Century Fox Records. The single by the Henry Simeone Chorale, "The Little Drummer Boy", proved to be an enormous success. It went to #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1958. In the Sixties alone it would be covered by such artists as the Ray Conniff Singers, Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, Johnny Cash, The Supremes, and Joan Baez.

It was perhaps natural given the success of "The Little Drummer Boy" that Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass would produce a special based on the song. The special The Little Drummer Boy was written by Romeo Muller, who had previously written Rankin/Bass's specials Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Cricket on the Hearth, and Mouse on the Mayflower. It was directed by Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin Jr., and Takeya Nakamura. The Little Drummer Boy had a fairly big name cast, with Greer Garson serving as the narrator, Jose Ferrer as the villain Ben Haramad, and Paul Frees providing the voices of all three Magi. Child actor Teddy Eccles provided the voice of the lead character--Aaron, the little drummer boy. The Little Drummer Boy was sponsored by the American Gas Association and debuted on NBC on 19 December 1968.

While The Little Drummer Boy proved to be popular, it was very different from the vast majority of the Rankin/Bass specials. For one thing, it dealt not with Santa Claus or a secular celebration of Christmas, but instead with the birth of Jesus himself. For another thing, it was a drama. Indeed, in some respects it deals with some rather grim subject matter for a holiday special. After Aaron's father and mother are killed by marauders and their farm burned to the ground, Aaron hates all people. His only sources of joy are the animals who survived the attack (a camel, a lamb, and a donkey) and the drum that his father gave him. The drum has the rather magical effect of making Aaron's animals dance whenever he plays it. Needless to say, events lead Aaron to Bethlehem and his encounter with the baby Jesus.

The Little Drummer Boy proved highly successful. For much of the Seventies it was not unusual for its annual airing to rank in the top ten of the Nielsen ratings for the week. Indeed, often it ranked in the top five. The Little Drummer Boy proved so successful that Rankin/Bass produced a sequel, The Little Drummer Boy Book II, that debuted in 1976 on NBC. The Little Drummer Boy Book II takes place immediately following the events of The Little Drummer Boy, and involved Aaron helping Melchior of the Three Wise Men. The Little Drummer Boy Book II was nominated for the Emmy for Outstanding Children's Special, but did not prove to be nearly as popular as the original.

The Little Drummer Boy aired annually on NBC from 1968 to 1984. It was then picked up by CBS, who aired it from 1985 to 1988.  ABC then picked up The Little Drummer Boy. ABC ceased airing The Little Drummer Boy in 2006 and since that time it has aired on the cable channel ABC Family. Over the years The Little Drummer Boy has been heavily edited from its original form. Commercial time has increased dramatically since 1968, so that The Little Drummer Boy (like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and other Rankin/Bass specials) airs today with a number of cuts. While I cannot be certain, it may have also been edited for content at some point. While my memory may be playing tricks on me, I seem to recall a scene which shows a silhouette of one of the marauders raising a knife to kill Aaron's mother that occurred immediately after Aaron's mother ushers him out of the house but before the house is shown to be burning.  Unfortunately, this brief scene appears in none of the versions available online, so I cannot be certain if it is my imagination or not.

As mentioned earlier, The Little Drummer Boy stands out from the other Rankin/Bass specials in that it is a drama and it also deals with a blatantly religious theme (namely, the birth of Jesus). Fortunately The Little Drummer Boy is done in such a way that it can be appreciated even by non-Christians such as myself. At its heart it is a story of a boy hardened by tragedy whose faith in humanity is restored by the kindness of others. Beyond its well-written script The Little Drummer Boy also boasts some of Rankin/Bass's best work. The sets are elaborate and exquisitely designed, while the stop motion animation displays occasional bursts of brilliance. What might be the best thing about the special is its music. In addition to "The Little Drummer Boy" itself, The Little Drummer Boy features the songs "The Goose Hangs High”, “Why Can’t the Animals Smile?",  and “One Star in the Night, all” by Maury Laws and Jules Bass. The songs number among the best featured in any Rankin/Bass special short of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Despite being extremely popular from the late Sixties into the Eighties, The Little Drummer Boy has largely been forgotten today. This is in many ways a shame, as it is actually one of the best of the specials ever produced by Rankin/Bass. It really deserves more than to be aired by ABC Family during odd times of the day. The Little Drummer Boy should be returned to a broadcast network, where many could see one of Rankin/Bass's more remarkable achievements and one of their more unique specials.


Gerry Dooley said...

Nice article on a great show. I have the original 1968 version and the scene you mentioned about the killing of the boy's parents goes this way: the father is killed by a thrown knife and the mother turns and stares at the killers and then cuts to the burning farm so you only assume what happens.

Terence Towles Canote said...

Thanks for clarifying that, Gerry!