A whole lot of holidays have a whole lot of traditions. A lot of great ones, too. It’s hard to beat Festivus’s Airing of Grievances. For my money, though, Christmas takes the fruitcake. You’ve got your mistletoe, your chestnuts roasting on an open fire, your It’s a Wonderful Life... I could go on ad nauseum. Everyone has their favorites: religious, commercial, or in between. Maybe I’m on my own here, but even the word “tradition” itself reminds me immediately of Christmas (well, almost immediately, after a quick mental run-through of the entire Fiddler on the Roof soundtrack).
It starts every year late on Thanksgiving morning. Families across America watch as a gigantic sleigh-float with what I assume is the best-paid mall Santa in the world perched atop it crawls from Central Park to 7th Avenue at the conclusion of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. From then on, the holiday season has quite a presence. The Christmas carols and holiday tunes start blaring from speakers. Trees get lined with lights. Red and green is all over the place. You know the drill. The day after Thanksgiving is basically the start of a corporate-fueled (if you’re into that) countdown to god’s son’s birthday (if you’re into that). Before you know it, they’re firing up the specials (not to be confused with the second wave ska band).
Oh, the Christmas specials. You would be hard pressed to find a television show that hasn’t churned out at least one, merry, holly-jolly, or otherwise. And hey, they’re nice! They take a stab at reminding us about the things that matter in life, like friends and family and doing unto others as we would have them do unto us. But the best specials tend to be the ones that exist in their own holiday realm; the ones that employ a certain charmingly rickety stop-motion animation. I’m talking, of course, about the ones that started it all: The Rankin/Bass specials!
In these trying times, the holiday season invites cynicism and debates over political correctness. Luckily, we have Rankin/Bass to smooth things out for us. Who could argue with Burl Ives’s Sam the Snowman? Since the television debut of their Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in 1964, Rankin/Bass have been responsible for the bulk of my (and probably your) memories of holiday television, from classic song-derived characters like Rudolph and Frosty the Snowman to unforgettable original characters like Santa Claus is Coming to Town’s Burgermeister Meisterburger and The Year Without A Santa Claus’s Heat Miser and Snow Miser.
What became Rankin/Bass was founded as Videocraft International, Inc. by Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass in 1960. Rankin, a graphic designer who worked his way up the ranks at ABC, generally handled the artistic side of things, while Bass, a veteran of the advertising biz, took care of the business side. It was to be a lucrative and durable partnership. Besides commercials, their first projects together were television series based on familiar characters: 1960’s The New Adventures of Pinocchio and 1961’s Tales of the Wizard of Oz. While Oz employed tradition cel animation, Pinocchio was produced using the innovative stop-motion animation technique that Rankin and Bass branded “Animagic.” Animagic would go on to be their calling card.
Rankin/Bass’s breakthrough was, of course, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. General Electric had commissioned Rankin/Bass for commercials and were impressed with the results. Soon enough, work on the special began. The special was based on the titular song by Rankin’s neighbor Johnny Marks, who also penned such classics as “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “Run Rudolph Run.” Employing the help of mostly Canadian voice actors and farming most of the stop motion animation (performed with wood, latex, and wire models on a table-top) to Tadahito Mochinaga’s Top Craft Studio in Japan, Rudolph was truly an international production and took 18 months and cost $500,000 to make (That’s $3,476,353 in 2010 dollars, according to the West Egg Inflation Calculator!). It debuted on December 6th, 1964 during NBC’s The General Electric Fantasy Hour, to great ratings (55% of its time slot’s audience).
They had it made. "The phone literally jumped off the hook,” after Rudolph’s debut, claimed Rankin in a 2001 interview. “Within a few years, we controlled that particular market.1" Rankin/Bass, for the next twenty years, were commissioned to produce holiday special after holiday special, including Easter stories like Here Comes Peter Cottontail and Thanksgiving special The Mouse on the Mayflower. They continued to develop Animagic but also dabbled in linear animation, like in Frosty the Snowman. Most of their specials (following the precedent set by Burl Ives in Rudolph) employed prominent guest stars, including Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney, and Buddy Hackett, as singers and narrators. Along with How the Grinch Stole Christmas and A Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolph and several other Rankin/Bass Christmas specials have run longer and more consistently than any other holiday specials on TV, and remained well-rated. Their style has become synonymous with the holiday special, resulting in tributes and parodies from shows like Community and MadTV.
It’s easy to see why Rudolph has continued to strike such a chord with generations of audiences. Everything about it is timeless. The story, a tale of misfit redemption, is satisfying and universally appealing. The narration of Burl Ives is delightful (he himself, despite an impressive career as an actor, singer, and writer, claims he is still most often remembered as Sam the Snowman). The songs are clever and catchy. It’s endlessly quotable (“Eat, poppa, eat!” and “Bumbles bounce!” are my favorites). The characters are memorable, hilarious, and compassionate. The Animagic is beautiful. Quite simply, the thorough and original world that Rankin and Bass built around a neighbor’s simple song is astounding.
Though their legacy will always be holiday specials, Rankin/Bass have a number of other productions under their belt. The most prominent of these include a wealth of creative commercials, an animated adaptation of The Hobbit, and a well-received, well-remembered, and recently-revived cartoon series that you may have heard of called ThunderCats. Their last holiday special, released in 2001 after a long hiatus, was Santa Baby. The legacy of Rankin/Bass lives on in the work of new groundbreaking animation powerhouses like Pixar, who produced a Rankin/Bass tribute in 2009 called Prep & Landing. We may not get another special, but the work of Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass will continue to brighten the holidays for generations. A year without them would be like a year without a Santa Claus.
1 Goldschmidt, Rick. The Enchanted World Of Rankin/Bass. 2001.