Holiday Christmas Specials: Early Musical Theatre Indoctrination
Every Christmas, the television fills up with a variety of holiday specials that help us get excited for the yuletide season. As a small child, I remember becoming giddy with Christmas anticipation when these television treats would air, with their promises of Santa Claus, presents, and stockings. Nowadays, all you have to do is turn on ABC Family’s 25 Days of Christmas marathon and capture some of the most beloved of these made-for-TV specials (sometimes in frequent repetition). Much more readily accessible than Disney films in the 70s and 80s, (and available to anyone who owned a televisions set) many of them are musicals and began the early indoctrination of a young “me” into the world of musical theatre by providing stories with scores that were fully integrated with the plot, advancing the storyline and deepening our understanding of the characters. What is more, they often featured the talents of Broadway performers voicing and singing for many of the characters.
Today’s blog entry is a look back at some of the best examples of these holiday classics and the wonderful music that inhabited these Christmas specials:
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (December 6, 1964)
The ultimate tale of bullying and mistreatment masked in a festive story about a reindeer with a glowing nose that leads to his public ridicule and estrangement, is a perennial favorite of ours. The producing duo of Rankin & Bass, famous for their stop-camera manipulation of dolls and models, created a distinct look of North Pole imagery and a colorful story all based around the 1949 Johnny Marks title song which was, in itself, based on the book by Marks’ brother-in-law Robert L. May. For the TV special, Marks provided a wide range of holiday-inspired songs that helped to underscore the themes of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer including the gentle “Silver and Gold”, the anthem of individuality “We’re a Couple of Misfits”, the hopeful “There’s Always Tomorrow,” and the celebratory “Holly, Jolly Christmas.”
Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (December 14, 1970)
Narrated by a stop-motion version of Fred Astaire, Rankin & Bass once again came up with a Christmas classic with their production of Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. Inspired by the title song, written by John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie and originally performed by Eddie Cantor on his 1934 radio show, this holiday confection told the story of how Santa Claus and many of the secular traditions of Christmas came to be. Maury Laws and Jules Bass provided additional music which included the jaunty “The First Toymaker to the King”, the slightly uncomfortable 9by today’s standards) “Be Prepared to Pay,” the infectiously liberating “One Foot in Front of the Other”, and the peculiar “My World is Beginning Today” which plays like a psychedelic drug trip in a bizarre animated sequence. Mickey Rooney voiced the title character, Keenan Wynn was the villain with a secret heart of gold known as the Winter Warlock, and voiceover extraordinaire Paul Frees gave the dastardly, lederhosen-clad Burgermeister Meisterburger a frightening interpretation.
The Year Without a Santa Claus (December 10, 1974)
Who doesn’t remember Heat Miser and Snow Miser, the two fussy villains of The Year Without a Santa Claus who are in constant competition over who rules the weather at the North Pole? Surely you remember their cheesy, vaudeville-style turns singing “I’m Mister Heat Miser” and “I’m Mister Snow Miser”, concluding their flamboyant routines with the declaration “I’m Too Much.” The Year Without a Santa Claus was based on the 1956 book by Phyllis McGinley about a disillusioned Santa who decides not to make his yearly run, only to be spelled by his ever-insistent wife. Maury Laws, a Rankin & Bass regular, provided the original songs (with lyrics by Jules Bass) which included the title tune, “I Could Be Santa Claus”, “It’s Gonna Snow Right Here in Dixie”, and the two Miser brothers’ ditties. The score was rounded out with Christmas classics such as “Blue Christmas” and “Here Comes Santa Claus.” Broadway musical vets Shirley Booth, Mickey Rooney and George S. Irving provided voices.
Twas the Night Before Christmas (December 8, 1974)
Rankin & Bass sometimes stepped away from stop-motion photography and produced animated holiday specials including Frosty the Snowman, and the slightly more musical Twas the Night Before Christmas. A mere 25 minutes in length, there are three wonderful melodies nonetheless, the touching “Give Your Heart a Try”, the sprightly “Even a Miracle Needs a Hand” and the hypnotizing “Christmas Chimes are Calling”, all by stalwarts Maury Laws and Jules Bass. Of course the story revolves around Clement Moore’s classic poem “A Visit from St. Nick” adapted by Jerome Coopersmith to tell the story of a mouse who doubts the existence of Santa Claus and who offends the jolly (but easily offended) toymaker by publishing a letter in the local paper asserting this belief on behalf of everyone. Now the town must rally to win back Santa’s affections and to ensure he will make his yearly visit. Joel Grey, Tammy Grimes and George Gobel provided the voices for this enchanting mini-musical.
Yogi’s First Christmas (November 21, 1980)
I’m not quite sure why, but Yogi’s First Christmas, put out by the Hanna-Barbera animation studio, has always been my favorite of all Christmas specials. Set in Jellystone National Park at the Jellystone Lodge, many Hanna-Barbera favorites including Auggie Doggie and Doggie Daddy, Huckleberry Hound, and Snagglepuss have assembled to celebrate the yuletide. Yogi Bear and his best pal Boo Boo are awoken from their hibernation by the celebrating and vow to stay awake and experience Christmas for the first time. They soon join in the revelry which is threatened by mysterious goings-on that frighten guests and threaten to close down their favorite haunt for good. The score, which included songs stolen and traded with other Hanna-Barbera holiday specials, featured music and lyrics by Hoyt Curtin, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. Among the delightfully memorable songs we hear are “Comin’ Up Christmas Time,” “Hope”, and “Making a Big To-Do”. I absolutely swear by this Christmas special and insist it will put you in the holiday mood. If you’ve never seen it, give it a try.
The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (December 17, 1985)
Rankin & Bass have put out a lot of strange things in their partnership producing television holiday specials, but 1985’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus may be just the oddest of them all. That’s not to say that it isn’t entertaining, because it is, but it is definitely is a lot creepier than their previous ventures. Based on L. Frank Baum’s (of The Wizard of Oz fame) book The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, we start the story by finding out that Santa Claus is about to die and a council of magical folk known as “The Immortals” have assembled to decide whether or not to bestow upon Kris Kringle the Mantel of Immortality which will ensure he can continue his great work past death. Debating around a table in the forest, they review Santa’s life like an insurance claim to determine whether he is worthy of immortality or if they should just let him die. The score featured the frightening “Immortality” (seriously, the creepiest song EVER to appear in a children’s holiday musical), the child-like “Babe in the World” and what is perhaps the catchiest earworm of all time “Big Surprise” (“I wanna wake up to a big surprise: a wooden cat with yellow-green eyes). Of special note, Alfred Drake (Broadway’s original Curly in Oklahoma!) voiced the character of the Great Ak who is the leader of the Immortals.