The Man Behind the Christmas Classics
They might think they are like a train with square wheels, or a Jack-in-the Box named Charlie, or a cowboy that rides an ostrich. Luckily, for all the believers out there, there is a little reindeer with a bright red nose that found a home for all of the forgotten toys, and put a smile on the face of generations, while helping them recognize the Christmas message.
Garrison resident Arthur Rankin Jr. is the man behind the classics Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, The Little Drummer Boy, Frosty the Snowman, and Santa Claus is Coming to Town. He founded Rankin/Bass Productions with his long time friend and business partner Jules Bass in the early 1960s.
Centered on some of the most popular Christmas songs, the stories they told became Yule-tide doctrine. Santa Claus, of course, was raised by the Kringles and brought the first toys to the children of Sombertown. Rudolph— as we all know thanks to Messrs. Rankin and Bass— rescued his family from the Abominable Snowman with the help of prospector Yukon Cornelius and the dentistryobsessed elf Hermey.
The “Christmas Classics,” as they have come to be known, are ambitious, fullscale animated musicals that include original songs, with the sung or spoken voices of such 20th century luminaries as Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney, Greer Garson, Danny Kaye, James Cagney, Jose Ferrer, Jimmy Durante, and even the Vienna Boy’s Choir. “The actors in those days had voices,” Rankin told the PCN&R in an exclusive interview. They employed top-notch Hollywood talent whenever they could, using the same basic team of writers, musicians, and animators.
Rankin said that while living on 12th Street in Greenwich Village, his next-door neighbor was Johnny Marks, the songwriter of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Rankin said that he was struck with the idea for an animated version of the song, which he, along with Bass, put together with the help of Marks. Still in circulation, Rudolph is now the longest running animated TV special ever. “It’s been running 46 years. It is picked up right after Thanksgiving every year … and this year it again won its time slot,” Rankin said proudly.
When the project was completed, Rankin said he had no idea what to expect. After the show received strong ratings, he was thrilled and surprised, prompting him to buy up “every song [he] could get [his] hands on,” leading to the rest of the series.
The stories always had an element of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, converting anti-Christmas Scroogelike characters such as the Winter Warlock and Abominable Snowman to the ways of Christmas charity and cheer.
However, The Little Drummer Boy stands alone among these films because it’s a retelling of the birth of Christ. The PCN&R asked Rankin if the response to a religiousthemed story had differed from the response to his other films, and he replied that in syndication, at least, it seemed to have been a bit less popular, though he wasn’t sure if that was because of the religious nature of the material or because the story was naturally a lot simpler than the others.
The work was intense and time-consuming, since most of the stories employed “live,” stop-motion animation, using doll-like figures (an average of eight inches tall) that had to be repositioned for every single frame of the film.
In addition to Maury Laws and Romeo Muller—their regular music and writing collaborators—Rankin and Bass worked with a talented team of Japanese animators who had pioneered the stopaction animation process on Japanese television. “These Japanese kids grew up with a brush, you know, not a pen and a pencil,” Rankin recalled, adding that they were much more naturally inclined to animation than their American counterparts.
Because of the time-consuming nature of the animation— and the fact that it was done in a time when computers, e-mail, and cell phones were not even close to being part of daily life—each story took about a year to produce, Rankin said.
The only one of the Christmas Classics that was not made in stop-motion animation is Frosty the Snowman, which is done in a traditional cartoon style, but has a special look and feel that Rankin explained was inspired by Christmas cards.
Growing up in Maryland, and later in New York City, Rankin came from a family of performers. His parents had been in vaudeville, and as a teenage boy, Rankin worked at Radio City Music Hall, where he struck up friendships with some of the Rockettes. He was also an artistic young man, a fan of Walt Disney cartoons, and studied art throughout his school years. As a young adult, he sought and found work in both advertising and television—which was still in its infancy. Starting in advertising, he produced commercials and won many awards, developing strong relationships with loyal clients so that he already had a following when he went into business for himself.
Rankin, showing humility in his accomplishments, was especially gracious in his praise for Bass, who also lives in Garrison. “I couldn’t have done it all alone,” he said. “I had wonderful people working with me and especially Jules Bass ... We have been partners and good friends for 50 years.”
Later the same afternoon of our interview, as if to underscore the timelessness of Rankin’s work, a quick glance at the cable television lineup revealed that ABC Family channel was playing Rudolph’s Shiny New Year— a Rankin/Bass Production.
—with T.J. Haley