Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Animated Christmas TV Specials of the Sixties

For most people the holiday season means hearing their favourite Christmas songs and watching their favourite Christmas movies. For younger Baby Boomers as well as the entirety of Generation X and Generation Y in the United States, the Yuletide also meant watching their favourite animated Christmas TV specials. From the Sixties into the Eighties several animated Christmas specials were produced, to the point that for many youngsters they became one of the most anticipated parts of the holiday season. Sadly, they would decline in the late Eighties, so that many Millennials would not experience them, at least not in the numbers that younger Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Gen Yers knew them.

Today it must seem to members of Generations X and Y as if there had always been animated Christmas specials. While regular network television broadcasts in the United States commenced in 1946, however, it would not be until 1962 that the first animated Christmas special would emerge. In 1962 Mr. Magoo was a phenomenally popular cartoon character. Unfortunately, theatrical animated shorts had gone into a steep decline in the Fifties. This meant that despite Mr. Magoo's popularity, UPA, the studio that had produced the Mr. Magoo shorts from 1949 to 1959, was not doing particularly well financially in the late Fifties and early Sixties. UPA turned to television to help increase its revenue, producing The Gerald McBoing Boing Show for CBS in 1956 and The Mr. Magoo Show for syndication in 1960. It should prove as no surprise, then, that Lee Orgel (then UPA's Director of Programme Development) struck upon the idea of Qunicy Magoo playing Scrooge in an animated production of A Christmas Carol.

Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol did not play as a straight adaptation of A Christmas Carol, but instead as if Quincy Magoo was an actor playing the role of Scrooge in a Broadway musical.  In fact, the opening featured Mr. Magoo arriving at the theatre where the production of A Christmas Carol took place, while the closing featured Mr. Magoo and the other players taking their bows (the near sighted Mr. Magoo destroying the sets in the process). Regardless, it was a somewhat faithful retelling of Dickens's tale, complete with songs by composer Jule Styne and  lyricist Bob Merrill.

Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol debuted on NBC on December 18 1962. The special proved to be a rousing success. It not only received over all positive reviews from critics, but it also did very well in the ratings. In fact, it did so well in the ratings that it led to the short-lived primetime series The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo, with Mr. Magoo playing various characters from literature. The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo lasted only a single season, from 1964 to 1965. Perhaps more importantly, Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol would lead to more animated Christmas specials produced in the Sixties, many of which have become classics.

It would be two years before another animated Christmas special would debut, but arguably it would be the most popular animated Christmas special of all time. Rankin/Bass's Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer debuted in 1964 and has been aired every year on broadcast network television ever since, sometimes multiple times a year. It was in 1955 that Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass founded Videocraft International, later renamed Rankin/Bass. Videocraft International  specialised in stop-motion animation, producing television commercials as well as the stop-motion animation TV series The New Adventures of Pinocchio and the cel animated TV series Tales of the Wizard of Oz.

Arthur Rankin Jr. just happened to be neighbours with Johnny Marks, the composer of the phenomenally successful Christmas song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer". Mr. Rankin suggested to Mr. Marks  that the song could be adapted as a TV special produced using stop motion animation. Johnny Marks was reluctant, fearing that the special could endanger the success of his biggest hit song, but eventually Arthur Rankin Jr. 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.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer debuted on NBC under the umbrella title The General Electric Fantasy Hour on December 3 1964. It proved to be an incredible success in the ratings. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer continued to air on NBC until 1972, when it moved to CBS. It has remained a Christmas tradition at CBS ever since. Not only has it aired every single year, but sometimes it has been aired multiple times. The success of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer would not only guarantee that there would be more animated Christmas specials over the next few years. It also guaranteed that Rankin/Bass would become the leader in classic holiday specials. Over the next two decades Rankin/Bass would produce several more Christmas specials, some of which would prove to have lasting success like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Given the success of Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, more animated Christmas specials would arrive almost immediately. What is more, the next two holiday specials would be classics nearly on the level of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Arguably the years 1964 to 1969 marked some sort of Golden Age of Animated Christmas Specials, with several of the classics debuting in that time frame.

In fact, the next animated Christmas special has aired on broadcast network television every year since its debut, one of the very few to do so. By the late Fifties and early Sixties Peanuts was not only phenomenally popular, it was the most popular comic strip in the world. The Peanuts gang made their television debut in commercials for the Ford Falcon in 1959, appearing in introductions for The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show (which Ford Motor Company sponsored). The spots were animated by Bill Melendez. Bill Meléndez later provided animation for the unfinished documentary on Peanuts and its creator Charles M. Schulz titled A Boy Named Charlie Brown, produced by Lee Mendelson.

While Lee Mendelson found himself unable to sell the documentary, he did receive a call from John Allen of the McCann Erickson Agency proposing a half-hour Peanuts Christmas special. Lee Mendelson agreed to the proposal in hopes of selling his documentary. The proposed special was set to be sponsored by Coca-Cola. The animation was provided by Bill Melendez. Production lasted for six months, with the last four months dedicated to creating the animation. In fact, A Charlie Brown Christmas was not completed until ten days before it was set to broadcast.

In many respects, it might have been fortunate that A Charlie Brown Christmas was completed late. CBS executives hated the special and criticised very nearly every aspect of it. Producer Lee Mendelson was honestly convinced that if it had not been scheduled to broadcast the very next week, CBS would have decided against airing it. Fortunately, A Charlie Brown Christmas debuted on December 9 1965 to high praise from critics. It also proved to be the second highest rated programme of the week, beaten out only by the juggernaut that was Bonanza. The success of  A Charlie Brown Christmas would lead to over 35 more Peanuts specials. A Charlie Brown Christmas aired on CBS annually until 2000, when it moved to ABC. It has aired on that network ever since.

The following year yet another classic animated Christmas special often ranked among the greatest ever made debuted. Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas was based on the highly successful 1957 book  How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss (the pen name of Theodor Geisel). During World War II Theodor Geisel served in the animation department of the First Motion Picture Unit of the United States Army Air Forces. It was while  he was in the Army that he became friends with legendary animator Chuck Jones. Together the two of them worked on the series of "Private Snafu" Army instructional cartoons. Given the success of the book and the success of animated Christmas specials on American broadcast network television, it should then come as no surprise that Dr. Seuss and Chuck Jones decided to produce a TV special based on the book.

Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas debuted on December 18 1966 on CBS. It proved very successful. It received fairly good reviews upon its debut. It also did very well in the ratings. CBS aired Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas annually until 1986. In 1988 cable channel TNT began airing the special annually. In 1996 Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas finally returned to broadcast network television, airing on The WB. It remained there until 2006 when it moved to ABC. As of 2015 it now airs on NBC.

While the years between 1964 and 1966 saw the debuts of three of the most successful animated Christmas specials of all time, 1967 would not. That is not to say that an animated Christmas special did not debut in 1967. Cricket on Hearth was Rankin/Bass's second animated Christmas special. It was very loosely based on the Charles Dickens novella of the same name. It also happened to be very different from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in several ways. First, it featured a live-action introduction and closing with actor and comedian Danny Thomas. Second, it utilised cel animation rather than stop motion. Third, Cricket on the Hearth also featured a fairly big name voice cast. Danny Thomas, his daughter Marlo Thomas, Hans Conried, Paul Frees, and Roddy McDowall all provided voices for the special. The animation on Cricket on the Hearth was handled by the Japanese animation studio TCJ, who also produced the classic anime series Gigantor, 8th Man, and Prince Planet. It marked the only time Rankin/Bass and TCJ worked together.

Sadly, despite the talent involved Cricket on the Hearth would not be a success. While Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas would go on to annual airings for literally decades, Cricket on the Hearth would disappear quickly and would soon be nearly forgotten by all but Rankin/Bass fans.

This would not be the case for the Rankin/Bass Christmas special that debuted the following year. Like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Little Drummer Boy was a stop-motion animated special based on a popular song. The Little Drummer Boy was written by Romeo Muller, who had previously written Rankin/Bass's specials Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Cricket on the Hearth. It also boasted a fairly big name cast. Greer Garson served as the narrator. Jose Ferrer voiced the villain Ben Haramad, and Paul Frees provided 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 December 19 1968.

The Little Drummer Boy did well in the ratings upon its debut in 1968. It continued to do phenomenally well in the ratings throughout the Seventies. In fact, it may well have been the most popular Rankin/Bass stop motion animated Christmas special aside from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer for much of the decade. It aired on NBC annually until 1984. In 1985 it moved to CBS, who aired until 1988. ABC began airing it the following  year and did so until 2006. The Little Drummer Boy then moved to the cable channel ABC Family, where it has aired ever since.

The following year Rankin/Bass would have another hit animated Christmas special on their hands. Like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and The Little Drummer Boy, Frosty the Snowman was based on a popular song. Unlike Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and The Little Drummer Boy, it utilised cel animation rather than stop motion animation (here it must be noted that contrary to popular belief it was not the first Rankin/Bass Christmas special to do so--as noted above Cricket on the Hearth also used cel animation). The animation was handled by the Japanese animation studio Mushi Production. Even in 1969 Mushi Production had an impressive history. It was founded by none other than Osamu Tezuka, creator of Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion. Indeed, the studio had already produced the anime shows Astro Boy, The Amazing 3, Kimba the White Lion, and Princess Knight, among others.

Frosty the Snowman featured a fairly well known voice cast. Jimmy Durante served as the narrator on the special. June Foray, the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel among many other cartoon characters, provided the voice of Karen, many of the children, and the schoolteacher. Character actor Billy De Wolfe voiced  Professor Hinkle the magician. Paul Frees voiced Santa Claus and other characters. Comedian Jackie Vernon, who voiced Frosty the Snowman, may have been the only member of the cast who was not well known at the time.

Frosty the Snowman debuted on CBS on December 7 1969. It did phenomenally well in the ratings upon its debut. In fact, it was the number one show for the week. Frosty the Snowman has continued to do well in the ratings over the decades. Along with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and A Charlie Brown Christmas it has aired annually on a broadcast network without interruption ever since its debut. Unlike Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and A Charlie Brown Christmas, Frosty the Snowman has never aired on any network other than the one on which it debuted. For the past 46 years it has only aired on CBS.

With the continued success of animated Christmas specials, it should come as no surprise that 1970 saw three new animated Christmas specials, although two of them emerged from countries other than the United States. The first to debut was The Night the Animals Talked. The Night the Animals Talked was a cel animated special based on a story by Peter Fernandez. Mr. Fernandez may be best known for his voice work on Speed Racer, but he also wrote the English version of Mothra (1961), as well as episodes of Astro-Boy, Gigantor, Speed Racer, and Marine Boy. Reportedly Mr. Fernandez had first created the story as a script for an MGM Records children's record. It was directed by legendary animator Shamus Culhane, who had worked over the years with Walter Lantz, Fleischer Studios, Walt Disney Productions, and Warner Brothers. The Night the Animals Talked featured three songs by lyricist Sammy Cahn and composer Jule Styne. It was produced by Italian company Gamma Film.

The Night the Animals Talked was based on the legend of how the animals talked when Jesus Christ was born. It debuted on ABC on December 9 1970. Despite the talent involved,  The Night the Animals Talked  would not see the success that earlier animated specials of the Sixties saw. It only aired three more times on an American broadcast network, last airing on ABC in 1973.

The second animated Christmas special to debut in 1970 emerged from Australia. Air Programs International (API for short) had produced  the television series Arthur! And the Square Knights of the Round Table in 1966. It was in the late Sixties that API embarked on a series called Family Classic Tales, the first of which was an adaptation of A Christmas Carol. It debuted in Australia in 1969.

API's adaptation of A Christmas Carol came to the United States via Jack Thinnes, Media Director at Sive Advertising in Cincinnati, Ohio. He saw a two minute demo of  the special and it occurred to him that a series of animated specials that adapted literary classics might suit his client, toy manufacturer Kenner. This resulted in s Famous Classic Tales, a series of specials that aired on CBS. API's A Christmas Carol then became the very first television special aired on under the Famous Classic Tales title in the United States. It debuted in the United States on December 13 1970.

API's A Christmas Carol did very well in the ratings on CBS, so much so that it would air annually on the network for fifteen years. Following API's A Christmas Carol, other entries in API's Family Classic Tales aired as part of Famous Classic Tales in the United States as well.

The third animated Christmas special to debut in 1970 was another product of Rankin/Bass. Like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Little Drummer Boy, and Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus is Comin' to Town was based on a popular song. Like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and The Little Drummer Boy, Santa Claus is Comin' to Town utilised stop-motion animation. As might be expected, it was written by Romeo Muller and directed by Jules Bass.and Arthur Rankin Jr.

Santa Claus is Comin' to Town featured some of the most impressive voice talent to ever work on a Rankin/Bass production. Fred Astaire voiced S.D. "Special Delivery" Kluger, a postman who narrates the special. Mickey Rooney voiced Kris Kringle/Santa Claus. Keenan Wynn voiced the Winter Warlock. Paul Frees not only voiced Burgermeister Meisterburger, but several other characters.

Santa Claus is Comin' to Town proved to be fairly popular, but initially it did not prove to have the lasting power of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, or even The Little Drummer Boy. ABC aired it annually until 1981, after which Santa Claus is Comin' to Town disappeared from prime time network television for many, many years. It would later air as part of the cable channel's ABC Family's "25 Days of Christmas" December programming block. At last in 2005 Santa Claus is Comin' to Town returned to ABC, where it once more airs annually. It also continues to air on ABC Family as well.

If anything animated Christmas specials would become even more common in the Seventies. At least one animated Christmas special, sometimes more, would debut each year during the decade. Despite the sheer number of animated Christmas specials that debuted in the Seventies, none of them would see the success of such specials from the Sixties as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, or Frosty the Snowman. Even Rankin/Bass could not quite repeat their earlier success, although such specials as The Year Without a Santa Claus proved fairly popular.

Sadly, as the Seventies became the Eighties time took its toll on the animated Christmas specials. Even many of the old standbys would fall by the wayside. Santa Claus is Comin' to Town ceased airing on ABC after 1981. Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol would also leave broadcast network television in the early Eighties. Even Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas would stop airing on network television after 1986. Ultimately only Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Frosty the Snowman would continue to air annually uninterrupted on network television.

Fortunately many of the specials would find new life on cable. TNT began running Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas in 1988. Eventually it returned to network programming. Santa Claus is Comin' to Town would find a home on ABC Family, only to return eventually to ABC itself. Currently of the Christmas specials that emerged in the Sixties, six are once again airing annually on broadcast network television (Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown ChristmasDr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Frosty the Snowman, and Santa Claus is Comin' to Town). That is more than any other decade. It would seem that it is true the classics never quite go out of style.

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