Tuesday, December 22, 2020

The 50th Anniversary of Rankin/Bass's Santa Claus is Comin' to Town

Fred Astaire voiced S.D. Kluger
The television special Santa Claus is Comin' to Town, produced by Rankin/Bass, first aired on December 14 1970 on ABC. This year then marks its 50th anniversary. It would be the third TV special to be created by Rankin/Bass using their stop motion animation technique called "Animagic," following Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and The Little Drummer Boy. It was their fifth Christmas special over all, following Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Cricket on the Hearth, The Little Drummer Boy, and Frosty the Snowman. It has aired annually ever since its debut, although not always on one of the broadcast networks.

In 1964 Rankin/Bass had success with the now classic special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. They would follow that success in 1968 with The Little Drummer Boy and in 1969 with Frosty the Snowman. One thing each special had in common is that they were based on popular Christmas songs. "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" was written by J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie and was first recorded in 1934 by Harry Reiser and his band. That same year it was sung on Eddie Cantor's show, turning the song into a hit. Over the years it would be covered by many different artists, including Bing Crosby and the Andrew Sisters and Gene Autry. 

That having been said, "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" did present one difficulty for Rakin/Bass. While the songs "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "The Little Drummer Boy," and "Frosty the Snowman" each had their own storylines, "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" did not. The song simply advises children to "be good for goodness' sake" and relates such activities Santa was already well known for, such as making his list. As a result Romeo Muller, who had already written several of Rankin/Bass's specials (including Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman), then had to create a whole new storyline from scratch. The end result was an origin story for Santa Claus, explaining various aspects of the Santa Claus mythos.

Romeo Muller was not the only Rankin/Bass veteran who worked on Santa Claus is Comin' to Town. Except for "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town," the songs were written by co-producer Jules Bass and Maury Laws. They had previously written songs for the Rankin/Bass specials Cricket on the Hearth and The Little Drummer Boy. The character design was created by Paul Coker, a regular contributor to Mad magazine. He had done uncredited character design work for the Rankin/Bass feature film The Wacky World of Mother Goose. The first Rankin/Bass special for which he was character designer was Frosty the Snowman. Santa Claus is Comin' to Town would be the first Rankin/Bass special using Animagic on which Paul Coker worked.

Arguably, Santa Claus is Comin' to Town featured the best known cast in a Rankin/Bass special up to that time. 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. Well known voice artist Paul Free voiced the Burgomeister, as well as several other voices.  Fred Astaire would reprise his role as S.D. Kluger in the 1977 special The Easter Bunny is Comin' to Town. Mickey Rooney would reprise his role as Santa Claus in A Year Without a Santa Claus, Rudolph and the Frosty's Christmas in July, and A Miser Brothers' Christmas.

Santa Claus is Comin' to Town would see some success when it premiered in 1970. When it aired in 1971, Santa Claus is Comin' to Town came in fifth in the ratings for the week of November 28 to December 4. While Santa Claus is Comin' to Town did well in the ratings for many years, in the end it would not see the lasting success that either Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman have seen. It aired on ABC until 1981 and with 1982 it entered syndication where it remained for many years. In 1995 it returned to network television for one year when it aired on the now defunct UPN. Beginning in 1997 it began airing on the Family Channel. It would air on the various permutations of that channel (Fox Family, ABC Family, and Freeform) until 2016.. Since then AMC has aired it every year. Santa Claus is Comin' to Town would eventually return to network television. It returned to ABC in 2005 and has aired there ever since.

Over the years Santa Claus is Comin' to Town has been edited for broadcast. As the Seventies progressed this was largely because of the increase in commercial time throughout the decade. That having been said, in later broadcasts it would be edited for content as well. With lyrics like "If you sit on my lap today/A kiss a toy is the price you'll pay," the song "Be Prepared to Pay"might have seemed innocent in 1970, but in following decades it could be considered downright creepy. As a result, it has been cut in later broadcasts. The song "My World is Beginning to Day" has also been cut, although it is not entirely clear why. It could be because the song is accompanied by some rather odd visuals, which have been described as "psychedelic." Freeform would also cut various sequences that the channel thought might be traumatizing to younger viewers.

While Santa Claus is Comin' to Town did not initially prove to be as popular as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, or even The Little Drummer Boy, since its debut it has come to be regarded as a classic.  It is safe to say it will continue to air on various television venues for years.

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