Saturday, December 23, 2017

Animated Christmas Television Specials of the Seventies

When the average American thinks of Christmas television specials, he or she will most likely think of something that was made in the Sixties. Admittedly the most successful animated holiday specials were made during that decade. Indeed, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), and Frosty the Snowman (1969) are the only animated Christmas specials to have aired annually without interruption on network television since their debut. While the Sixties produced by far the most successful animated Christmas television specials of all time, the Seventies actually produced more of them. Surprisingly, it would be towards the end of the Seventies that would see the most animated Christmas specials debut.

Perhaps fittingly, the first Christmas television special of the decade was based on a classic, namely Charles Dickens's novella A Christmas Carol. This animated version of A Christmas Carol was directed by Richard Williams with Chuck Jones as executive producer. It premiered on ABC on December 21 1971. The 1971 animated version of A Christmas Carol is notable for utilising two actors from the classic A Christmas Carol (1951), also known as Scrooge. Quite simply, Alastair Sim provided the voice of Ebeneezer Scrooge and Michael Horden provided the voice of Marley's Ghost. It is also notable for having been subsequently released theatrically, which led to it winning the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film for 1972. There were some in the industry who were unhappy that a short originally made for television had won an Oscar, and as a result the criteria for shorts were changed so that no short originally aired on television would qualify.

Chuck Jones would also have a hand in the second animated Christmas special to air in the Seventies. He directed A Very Merry Cricket, which was a sequel to the 1973 television special based on the popular children's book The Cricket in Times Square. It debuted on December 14 1973 on ABC.

The second animated special to air in 1973 would see some success. The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas premiered on NBC on December 17 1973. It featured a fairly big name cast, with Tom Smothers as Ted E. Bear (the bear of the title), Barbara Felton as Patti Bear, Arte Johnson as Professor Werner von Bear, and Casey Kasem as the narrator. It proved successful enough to air annually into the Eighties. A stuffed toy of Ted E. Bear would even be sold in stores in the early Eighties, and a Halloween sequel, The Great Bear Scare, aired in syndication in October 1983. 

The 1974 holiday season would see no less than three holiday animated specials debut, two of them from the studio best known for their holiday specials. The first of the three was Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus, a cel animated special based on the famous letter written by a young girl named Virginia to the editor of The New York Sun in 1897.  The special was directed by Bill Melendez, best known for the many Peanuts specials, and featured Jim Backus and Louis Nye among its voice talent. It won the Emmy for Outstanding Children's Special.

The next holiday animated special to debut in 1974 was from Rankin/Bass, who had produced the classics Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Little Drummer Boy, and Frosty the Snowman in the Sixties. This special would not see the success of those three. 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 premiered on CBS on December 8 1974.

The third animated holiday special to premiere in 1974 was also from Rankin/Bass, and over the years has developed a rather large cult following. The Year Without a Santa Claus was based on the novel by Phyllis McGinley and more featured Mickey Rooney as Santa Claus (he had also voiced Santa in Rankin/Bass's 1970 special Santa Claus is Comin' to Town). The special's plot centred around a sick and disenchanted Santa, who considers calling off his usual Yuletide trip around the world. It premiered on December 10 1974 on ABC. While The Year Without a Santa Claus would not become an annual tradition the way that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Frosty the Snowman did, over the years it has proven to be one of Rankin/Bass's most popular specials, largely because of the Miser Brothers (Dick Shawn as Snow Miser and George S. Irving as Heat Miser). In 2006 NBC aired a live action remake of the special that was considerably different from the original. For the past many years it has aired on ABC Family (now Freeform), which shows it multiple times during the holiday season.

The first and only one of two animated specials to debut in 1975 is now largely forgotten. The Tiny Tree was produced DePatie-Freleng, and was part of the irregularly scheduled series Bell System Family Theatre. The special involved some rather big names. Buddy Ebsen, Paul Winchell, Allan Melvin, and Janet Waldo numbered among the cast. The songs in the special were composed by none other than Johnny Marks, the writer of the song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer". It premiered on NBC on December 14 1975 and ran into the Eighties, although it has not been seen much since.

The second new animated holiday special of 1975 was another Rankin/Bass production. 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. it premiered on December 19 1975 on NBC, but would later find a home on CBS for several years.

The 1976 holiday season would see the debut of no less than three Rankin/Bass holiday specials. Unfortunately, all three of them were sequels to previous specials. The first was Frosty's Winter Wonderland, which debuted on December 2 1976 on ABC. 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 debut, on December 10 1976 on ABC. The special centred upon Rudolph seeking out the next Baby New Year before midnight on New Year's Eve. Rudolph was the only character 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 premiere 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." It premiered on NBC ond December 13 1976. Sadly, it would not be repeated every year for literally years as other Rankin/Bass specials have been.

It should come as no surprise that the only  new animated special to air in 1977 was from Rankin/Bass. Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey has largely been forgotten today. It was made in the stop-motion process called Animgaic for which Rankin/Bass was known. It 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 on ABC. Although now highly regarded by some Rankin/Bass fans, it did not become an annual Yuletide tradition.

The 1978 holiday season would see several new animated specials debut. It also saw the beginning of a trend that would last into the Eighties, whereby animated Christmas specials would be based on popular characters from well-established franchises. To a degree this was nothing new. The very first animated Christmas special was Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol, which featured the popular star of animated theatrical shorts, Mr. Magoo. A Charlie Brown Christmas used the characters from the popular Peanuts comic strip. That having been said, starting in 1978 there was an absolute rush to create animated Christmas specials starring already established characters from various franchises, to the point that sometimes the majority of new animated holiday specials starred characters from comic strips, children's books, and so on.

In fact,the first animated special to premiere in 1978 was an example of this trend. Raggedy Ann and Andy in The Great Santa Claus Caper starred the popular children's book characters as they try to thwart a wolf who wants to take over Santa's workshop. The special was written and directed by animation legend Chuck Jones, and featured the voice talents of June Foray, Daws Butler, and Les Tremayne. It premiered on CBS on November 30 1978.

The second animated special to debut in 1978 also featured a well established character. The Pink Panther in: A Pink Christmas featured the well-known star of theatrical shorts and the opening credits of the Pink Panther movies. The special featured the Pink Panther as being homeless and wandering around a large city during the holidays. It premiered on December 7 1978 on ABC.

The third new animated special of 1978 was one of the most unique Rankin/Bass productions ever made. In December 1956 the anthology series The Alcoa Hour aired a musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol entitled "The Stingiest Man in Town", featuring songs with lyrics by Janice Torre and music by Fred Spielman. Rankin/Bass made a cel-animated adaption of this episode of The Alcoa Hour, retaining the title The Stingiest Man in Town. The hour long special featured some well known voice talent, including Walter Matthau as Ebeneezer Scrooge, Theodore Bikel as Marley's Ghost, Robert Morse as a young Scrooge, Dennis Day as Scrooge's nephew Fred, and Paul Frees as the voices of the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present. The special premiered on ABC on December 23 1978. Despite being some of Rankin/Bass's best work, it would not become an annual tradition the way that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Frosty the Snowman did.

Nineteen seventy nine would see the trend towards using characters from established franchises in animated Christmas specials continue. As the title suggests, The Little Rascals Christmas Special used characters from the classic "Our Gang" theatrical shorts of the Twenties, Thirties, and Forties. With the exception of Darla Hood (who played a mother in special), it used none of the actors who actually appeared in the "Our Gang" shorts. The Little Rascals Christmas Special premiered on NBC on December 3 1979.

Also premiering on December 3 1979 on NBC was The Berenstain Bears' Christmas Tree. Based on the popular "Berenstain Bears" children's books, the special centred on the Berenstain Bears getting their Christmas tree. The special had originated with the authors of the books, Stan and Jan Berenstain, themselves, who first pitched their idea for a holiday special in November 1978.

The next new animated special of 1979 was yet another special produced by Rankin/Bass. Titled Jack Frost, it centred on the character of Jack Frost, who had appeared previously in Frosty's Winter Wonderland and the theatrical feature film Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July (which itself would later be aired regularly on television). 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 on NBC.

The final new animated special of 1979 was A Family Circus Christmas, based on the comic strip The Family Circus. It had been preceded by another animated special based on the comic strip, A Special Valentine with the Family Circus, in 1978. It premiered on NBC on December 18 1979.

The decade of the Seventies would close with the cycle towards holiday animated specials featuring well-established characters well underway. Both of the new animated specials that debuted that year used already established characters. The first was a Rankin/Bass production, Pinocchio's Christmas. . The first television series the company had ever produced was The New Adventures of Pinocchio, so with the special Pinocchio's Christmas they were not only using a well-known character, but one they had used before. The special involved the puppet's efforts to earn money for present for Gepetto. Pinocchio's Christmas first aired on December 13 1980 on ABC.

The final new holiday special to debut in the decade used a famous fairy tale character. A Snow White Christmas had absolutely no connection to the classic Disney movie. Instead the special was something of a sequel to the original fairy tale itself. It was produced by Filmation, well-known for their Saturday morning cartoons of the Sixties and Seventies. It premiered on December 19 1980 on CBS.

None of the animated Christmas specials of the Seventies would match the classics of the Sixties (Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and Frosty the Snowman) in lasting popularity. In fact, perhaps the only animated holiday special of the Seventies that would have any real lasting power was Rankin/Bass's The Year Without a Santa Claus. That most of the animated holiday specials of the Seventies would not see the lasting success of the classic of the Sixties had very little to do with the quality of the specials themselves. While some of the Seventies Christmas animated specials were poorly made, there were others that stand up quite well today. This was certainly true of Richard Williams's 1971 adaption of A Christmas Carol, Rankin/Bass's A Year Without Santa Claus, and Rankin/Bass's The Stingiest Man in Town.

Instead the lack of lasting power on the part of most of the Seventies Yuletide animated specials was most likely due to other factors. Among these was the fact that in the Seventies there were just so many of them. Not only were new specials in competition with the classics from the Sixties, but also with the many other holiday specials that were debuting during any given season. By the end of the Seventies there would seem to have been an outright glut of animated holiday specials on network television, so there should be little wonder that many fell by the wayside.

Another reason that the animated Christmas specials of the Seventies did not last may have been that later in the decade the production companies and networks began to rely more on established properties than original material. Even Rankin/Bass produced sequels to their earlier specials. Sadly, the sequels generally did not match the originals in terms of quality.

Yet another factor in most of the Seventies animated Christmas specials not lasting is the fact that in the Eighties animated holiday specials began to lose favour with the networks. While the Eighties began with many being produced each year, as the decade progressed there would be fewer and fewer new animated holiday specials being made each year. To make matters worse, some of the well-established, once extremely popular, holiday specials began to fall by the wayside. Such once popular Christmas specials as Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Little Drummer Boy, and Santa Claus is Comin' to town ceased airing regularly on the networks in the Eighties and the Nineties. While many of these specials would later return to the networks, many of the specials produced in the Seventies did not.

Regardless, while the most successful animated Christmas specials emerged in the Sixties, it would seem that the Seventies actually produced many more of them. And for all that many have been forgotten, there are others that are still fondly remembered to this day. Although little is heard about it today, given it success I am guessing many have fond memories of The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas. As to The Year Without a Santa Claus, it long ago became well enough established in American pop culture that most Gen Xers probably know who the Miser Brothers are. While most of the animated Christmas specials of the Seventies would not see the success of the classics from the Sixties, many of them remain fondly remembered to this day.

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