We all know how they end--"Scrooge" Magoo and the Grinch learn the spirit of giving; Rudolph proves his nose is good for something useful; Charlie Brown is forgiven for that scraggly tree--but there are a few facts you probably didn't know about these familiar holiday TV specials. Here's my personal take on five animated favorites from the 1960s, which also includes a few memories of the first time I sat down with my family to watch them.
This is the one that started it all: it was the very first animated holiday special to air on a major network in prime time. It also boasted some impressive credentials, including a score penned by acclaimed Broadway musical composers Jule Styne and Bob Merrill. In keeping with the Broadway theme, this is actually a show about putting on a show, with Mr. Magoo seen at the beginning careening his car carelessly down the streets of New York City to the theatre while the producer nervously tries to get things running, knowing what a challenge the nearsighted Magoo's presence poses, before the serious production gets underway.
The new score added to the old familiar Dickens tale brings a wide range of moods to the proceedings, from the sentimental ("Winter Was Warm"), to the comical ("We're Dispicable"). The latter piece tended to appeal to my offbeat sense of humor which was more or less being self-realized by the age of seven when I first saw the special. I made a couple of odd observations during the number, noting that the mouths of the quartet of no-goods singing it looked like pig's heads during the sequences when their mouths were framed in solid black (maybe it was to emphasize what "swines" they were), and saying to my folks that the man in the top hat "looks like Mr. Tooth Decay"* (I never noticed until many years later that Tiny Tim bore a striking resemblance to another animated character of yore: Gerald McBoing Boing who, like Magoo, was created at UPA).
This, in fact, was one of the very first shows we ever saw on our newly-purchased 23-inch Sears Silvertone black-and-white lowboy console, the last TV we ever bought with VHF-only tuning capability. We saw the Magoo special in monochrome more often than any other animated yuletide TV offering. It wasn't until we got a color TV in 1966 that we discovered for the first time that the Ghost of Christmas Future was shrouded in a red robe, not a black one as we had assumed in previous years.
Next time you watch this show, look carefully at the chasing lights surrounding the title at the very beginning. You'll find they "skip" at one point. This is due to the fact that the footage repeats itself in current cable airings over the opening soundtrack. When NBC originally ran it, the first thing viewers saw after the peacock faded to black was a New York-style block of buildings with a lot of signs attached, each bearing the sponsor's name--Timex--before moving to the title sign. After its run on NBC ended, the plug was removed and some creative editing done.
This special also served as a "pilot" of sorts for the NBC prime time animated series, The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo, which debuted two years later. The series, like the special, plunged Magoo into lead roles in adaptations of various literary classics. The 1964-65 TV season was a busy one for Jim Backus, who was not only saddled with providing Magoo's voice for this series, but also appearing weekly in the flesh in a second new fall offering for Saturdays on a rival network. Something about several people shipwrecked on an island...
*For the masses too young to remember, Mr. Tooth Decay was a top hat and cape-wearing villain seen in animated TV commercials in the late '50s for Colgate Dental Cream with Gardol, who tried to attack Happy Tooth (a big molar with big eyes) but instead ended up bouncing off the "invisible protective shield" Gardol provided the tooth with after being brushed with Colgate by Mighty Mouse; these ads regularly appeared on his CBS Saturday morning cartoon show.
First Broadcast: December 6, 1964 on NBC
Original Sponsor: General Electric
Videocraft (later known as Rankin-Bass Productions) had one traditional animated special--"Return To Oz"--in the can, when production was already underway on this unique retelling of the story of the "misfit" reindeer, the first TV special to be produced in a brand-new process dubbed "Animagic", involving an entire year's worth of painstaking work with hundreds of intricately ball-jointed, fully poseable characters whose speech had to be accompanied by precise application of lip poses for each syllable. Total cost for the one-hour production was $500,000...and this was in the early 1960s. Imagine what it would cost to do the same special today!
Fortunately, Rankin-Bass was able to get this massive project completed in less-inflationary times, which also afforded them the chance to hire a celebrity as well-known to 1960s audiences as Burl Ives to act as narrator and sing a few songs written for the special. He had acted in several movies and was a prolific recording artist who was a favorite of children, and his post-Rudolph TV exposure included two series during the decade: O.K. Crackerby in 1965, and the far-more-successful anthology drama, The Bold Ones in 1969.
One particularly side-splittingly funny moment in the special occurs when Comet, as coach of the Reindeer Games, gets his first look at Rudolph with his glowing red nose, and his visual reaction comes a split-second before he screams!
"Rudolph" was originally produced for NBC's General Electric Fantasy Theatre anthology series of specials, and therein lied a problem with one of the songs Ives was to sing. "Holly Jolly Christmas" had a line that went "I don't know if there'll be snow/But have a cup of cheer", which concerned the top brass at GE. "What?!", they cried. "You mean you want a major corporation like General Electric to go into the homes of families and tell them to have a drink?" But of course, the line was left in the song and became part of Burl Ives' repitore.
Other songs written for the special were fair game for the cutting room floor and weren't as fortunate. A year or two after the initial airing, "We Are Santa's Elves" had an instrumental segment cut out to save air time, and Rudolph and elf-friend Hermey's duet "We're A Couple Of Misfits" was deleted entirely--also for time reasons--and replaced by the shorter "Fame And Fortune", with some reshooting of accompanying footage. Not until CBS aired a restored print in 1998 were these delightful pieces of music returned to their rightful places. During the '70s, the editing was even more severe: there were a couple of CBS broadcasts in which the song Santa Claus sings to Rudolph, "Jingle Jingle Jingle" was cut. probably for more commercials. (The Grinch also suffered some '70s time cuts; more about that later.)
One alteration from the original broadcast seems here to stay. If you listen closely during the closing credits, you can here a periodic "whoosh" sound effect under the singing of "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer". The first time it aired on NBC, the credits were displayed in a novel fashion, on packages that were dropped one by one from Santa's airborne sleigh by an elf. Some time later, the end sequence was reshot with the credits diplayed conventionally, but the "whoosh" of the dropped presents still remains on the soundtrack.
Watching this special for the first time in 1964 on the same Sears black-and-white TV we watched Mr. Magoo on (we'd be packing it up and moving to Kansas City a few weeks later), I noticed that when the show returned from a station break and I saw Rudolph and Hermey making their way in wide shot through a snowstorm just before Yukon Cornelius showed up for the first time, there was an off-screen voice accompanying the action reminding me that I was watching "Colorful Channel 13--WHO-TV, Des Moines". Later toward the end, as Santa realized that Rudolph's nose will allow the sleigh to make it through the monster snowstorm he thought would "cancel" Christmas, and he asked "Rudolph, with your nose so bright, won't you guide my sleigh tonight?", I said with delight, "Hey, that's just like in the song!" My visiting aunt, who watched it along with us, told me, "Yes, that's called a lyric."
We may have seen that first NBC airing on a black-and-white set, but at least it left me with some colorful memories.
This timeless classic needs no introduction or explanation for most people. Of all the "Peanuts" specials ever created, this first one was the only one that turned up on CBS every single year until 2001, when ABC took over the broadcast rights to this and several other titles. Most of the others have been sitting on the shelf for some time; even "It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" was passed over by CBS for a few years at a time, although it may now be back to regular yearly showings on ABC. Prior to the Christmas special, the Peanuts gang had been animated before in a number of commercials for the Ford Motor Company*. But the Christmas special and those which followed propelled Charles Schulz's beloved creations into TV superstars.
*If you ever tuned into the 1960-1961 color reruns of The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show, which used to run on PBS affiliates in certain markets on Saturday evenings some years back, you may have wondered why they open with an animated sequence featuring Charlie Brown and the "Peanuts" gang displaying the show's title in some way as an unseen chorus stiltedly chants "Ladies and gentlemen...The Ford Show starring...Tennessee Ernie FOOOOOooooord!". Simple enough--the Ford Motor Company was the original sponsor, using the commercials with the "Peanuts" characters, during the days this series was seen on NBC (thereby also explaining why some of these are in color), and today's viewers who didn't see it during the network run reasonably assume that the title, The Ford Show, merely refers to Ernie's last name, when in fact it intentionally referred to the sponsor's name.
The Christmas special's premiere outing does have a few secrets worth sharing. The original 60-second ad CBS aired in 1965 to promote it (which still exists today) featured a scene in which Charlie Brown is sitting at Schroder's piano playing an off-key version of a children's tune, after which everyone else surrounding him all shout, "That's terrible, Charlie Brown!" This scene never made the final product...a fact not lost on me after the first time I'd seen it, the only time I ever saw it on a black-and-white set.
During the scene in which everyone is catching snowflakes on their tongues, I could have sworn in the early airings that there was a shot of one boy (maybe C.B.) swallowing and choking on one, but I may be confusing it with a newspaper strip or a different special, since the uncut version CBS has been running for a couple of years now doesn't show it. Yet during the scene in which the kids do modern dances to the "Linus and Lucy Theme", there remains a noticable "cut" in the music and visual. It's been so long since that first airing (which pre-empted The Munsters on a Thursday evening) that it may be almost completely forgotten as to whether or not the edit was always there.
Charles Schulz told TV Guide in an article a couple of years before his death that he wasn't happy with the way the project turned out. He pointed to a few continuity problems in the artwork, such as the pathetic little tree Charlie Brown chooses to use in the school play. The first time we see it on the tree lot, it has three branches, but when he and Linus bring it to the school and everyone laughs at it, it has six (and of course there's the final scene where it's suddenly lush with greenery after being decorated). I also noticed that the position of the words on Lucy's psychiatry booth ("The Doctor Is Real In") change in various shots; at one point, the word "real" isn't even seen). I could understand his concern, but what was he gonna do--make it over again? Everyone's either forgiven the errors or hasn't even noticed them. Errors or not, I still get a laugh out of Snoopy crunching bones while reading the morning paper, and Lucy trying to get Schroder to play the "right" version of "Jingle Bells" on his piano with the description, "you know--deck them halls and all that?", and he responds with organ music coming from the piano.
There is one slight alteration I'd like to see done to this special in the future, one that would not in any way hurt its impact or significance. When Coca-Cola was sole sponsor of this special years ago, they worked the product name and logo into both the opening and closing credits during the actual action. At the end, when everyone is singing "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" over the credits, the early airings bore an on-screen message that said something like "With holiday greetings from your local Coca-Cola bottlers" and showed the vintage red ball logo as the gang ended the song with one final, strained "Glory to the New....born...Kiiiiiing". Instead of having the song fade prematurely to avoid showing the now-pointless Coke plug, they could let the song finish as before, and as they sing the last line, the accompanying video could be of the snow falling behind the "A Charlie Brown Christmas--The End" tag. Good grief, why not?