It seemed like in the 1960s winter snow was plentiful. Built up from driveway plowing or roof top shoveling we had heaps of the cold, white, compact snow. At times snow as high as the roof eaves. With a small spade shovel and young castle building imagination the snow fort was eventually erected with tunnels, cavern rooms and lookout points. You never know when an army bearing snowballs may show up. Spend all day and into the night on this arduous project only to be interrupted by a call from the house. “Christmas TV specials are coming on.” We would drop everything right there and run into the house to be greeted by the smell of hot chocolate and popcorn. Our mittens were covered in crusted frozen snow and we were wet. But, were we cold? Kids don’t feel cold!
So while we were bragging none stop about our new snow fort we changed into dry flannel pajamas and sat down on the floor in front of our big black and white television, hot chocolate and bowl of popcorn in hand. All excited for ‘Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer’, the best of all the Christmas TV specials to come on. Actually all the TV specials produced and directed by Rankin and Bass were awesome.
It was easy to get excited about any Christmas TV specials in those days. There was no such thing as cable TV back then. All we had for television reception was a roof top antenna which gave us four channels on a good day.
Rankin and Bass mastered stop motion animation and these clay figures were fondly noted as ‘puppetoons’. These clay doll like characters were made from plasticine clay for it is very pliable, very easy to mold and form into a reindeer, tree, Santa or an Abominable Snowmonster. A picture would be taken of a scene with these clay characters and clay back grounds. Then another picture would be taken of the same scene with the characters slightly altered. Each still photograph of these clay figurines would then be recorded onto film. Put together then played at least twelve frames per second to give you tangible animation. That is how Rankin and Bass gave us these great memorable Christmas TV specials. Sound simple? Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer is forty seven minutes. That would be approximately three thousand, eight hundred and forty pictures needed to complete this show. Each one slightly altered and what if the studio janitor hits the set while mopping or the camera accidentally gets moved? You know this project is going to take a little time.
It’s been a long time since my days of Christmas TV specials and snow forts. Not many snow forts these days, fortunately the Rankin and Bass television specials are still with us, even after forty years. Put in chronological order here are Rankin and Bass productions at their best.
This longest running Christmas holiday special has entertained millions since 1964. Sam the Snowman narrates this story where Rudolph becomes the laughing stock of Christmastown, just because of his nose glowed red. Hermey, a wholesome looking elf from the same town felt that he never fit in with the rest of the elves. He wanted to be a dentist and not build toys. So Rudolph and Hermey ran away from Christmastown, calling themselves Misfits. In their adventurous trek they come across the Abominable Snowmonster, an island of Misfit Toys and a rescuing prospector called Yukon Cornelius. Safe back in Christmastown Rudolph finds out that Christmas is canceled due to bad weather. Suddenly Rudolph’s nose becomes a bright beacon and saves Christmas by guiding Santa’s sleigh that night.
Sam the Snowman – Burl Ives
Rudolph – Billie Ray Richards
Santa – Stan Francis
Hermey – Paul Soles
Yukon Cornelius – Larry D. Mann
After Aaron’s family died he started to hate the world and everyone in it. To take out his frustrations he would beat on a drum. The only friends that Aaron has is a donkey called Samson, a lamb Baabaa and Joshua the camel. Joshua gets sold and while Aaron is searching for his friend, the camel, he meets up with three wise men who are on their way to Bethlehem. Aaron regains his compassion for human life, thanks to the newborn Jesus and his drum.
Aaron – Teddy Eccles
Story Teller – Greer Garson
First of all I have to say, this one is my personal favorite of all the Rankin and Bass productions. A postal carrier narrates this lovable Christmas TV special about a grouchy Mayor Burgermeister Meisterburger of Sombertown that hates toys. So, when a youthful Santa tries to deliver toys on Christmas eve to all the poor kids of Sombertown, the Mayor shut him down. In fact, the mayor outlawed toys, even if the ‘T’ word was mentioned, off to the dungeon you would go. Santa Claus became an outlaw with a bounty on his head. Running away from this town Kris Kringle and his new friend Topper the penguin run into the Winter Warlock and adventure. With help from his new found friends and a lovely school teacher, Kris prevailed and Christmas presents were delivered to all in Sombertown.
Postal Carrier/Narrator – Fred Astaire
Kris Kringle – Mickey Rooney
Winter Warlock – Keenan Wynn
Burgermeister – Paul Frees
School Teacher – Robie Lester
Narration was done by Mrs. Claus in this Christmas TV special about the time Santa had to take a much needed vacation due to a very bad cold, sneezing and depressed.
To save Christmas two of Santa’s elves, Jingle Bells and Jangle Bells, leave the North Pole to find people who still believe in Christmas to cure Santa. On their trip the elves get into trouble in a town called Southtown and a sticky situation with two characters, Heat Miser and his brother Snow Miser. Do not worry, Santa gets better and does Christmas.
Santa Claus – Mickey Rooney
Mrs. Claus – Shirley Booth
Jingle Bells – Bob McFadden
Jangle Bells – Bradley Bolke
Heat Miser – George S. Irving
Snow Miser – Dick Shawn
Yes, it has been a long time since I made a snow fort. Not as much snow as before is my excuse. But these great Rankin and Bass, Christmas TV specials still linger in our hearts and minds and cable TV.
Merry Christmas, Cinema Serge.