ANIMATION SPIN
December 8, 2015 posted by

Rankin/Bass “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” on Records

One of the best loved, longest running and most perfect of Rankin/Bass TV specials hits the 45-year mark this Monday. Here’s a look at the soundtrack album.

RBClausMGMLPFront-600

Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass Present
SANTA CLAUS IS COMIN’ TO TOWN
Complete Original TV Soundtrack
MGM Records SE-4732 (12” 33 1/3 RPM Mono–Enhanced for Stereo / 1970)
CD Reissue: Rhino Records R2-76102 (1989 / Paired with Frosty the Snowman)

Album Producers: Maury Laws, Jules Bass. Film Producer/Directors: Arthur Rankin, Jr., Jules Bass. Original Story and Teleplay: Romeo Muller. Sound Engineers: John Boyd, Jim Harris, Phil Kaye, Bob Elder. Sound Effects: Tom Clack. Musical Director: Maury Laws. Cover Design: Norbert Jobst, Maurer Productions West. CD Reissue Supervision: George Feltenstein, Rick Goldschmidt, Patrick Milligan. CD Liner Notes: Rick Goldschmidt. Research Associate: Mark Sykora. Running Time: 51 minutes.

Voices: Fred Astaire (Special Delivery “S.D.” Klueger); Mickey Rooney (Kris Kringle); Keenan Wynn (Winter Warlock); Robie Lester (Miss Jessica); Paul Frees (Burgermeister Meisterburger, Grindsley, Baby Claus, Assorted Kringles, Guard, Father, Opening Announcer, Scrooge, Businessman); Joan Gardner (Tanta Kringle, Lady in Store); Dina Lynn, Andrea Sacino, Gary Thomas, Jeff Thomas (Children); The Westminster Children’s Choir, The Mike Sammes Singers.

Songs: “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” by Haven Gillespie, J. Fred Coots; “The First Toymaker to the King,” “Be Prepared to Pay,” “Put One Foot in Front of the Other,” “What Better Way to Tell You” by Maury Laws, Jules Bass.

“I’ve always said [Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town] was my favorite special,” said composer/musical director Maury Laws of Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town to Rankin/Bass historian Rick Goldschmidt in the reissue CD liner notes. “It was a great cast, the songs worked well and the script was fun.”

By 1970, Rankin/Bass had several highly rated specials in their catalog, plus a few feature films (including the now-revered Mad Monster Party) and even a handful of Saturday morning cartoons that provided competition for the much larger Hanna-Barbera and Filmation.

More than anything else, Rankin/Bass had a virtual lock on holiday specials, almost all of which are still available either on broadcast, cable, streaming or Blu-ray/DVD. With respect to changing tastes and multitudinous entertainment choices, the staying power of even their lesser works is substantial.

RBClausMontage-600

Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town is, like Here Comes Peter Cottontail (which also premiered in 1970), an example of Rankin/Bass at the height of their creative resources and effective format. Most of the specials took a popular Christmas song and constructed a show around it. Some songs lent themselves to full hour stories and some to half-hours. The popularity of the specials helped boost the ratings of additional ones. 1974’s ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas was a steady winner for CBS for years thanks in no small part to Frosty the Snowman, which preceded it (the winning streak was broken with Bill Melendez’s Frosty Returns, featuring the voice of a very young Elisabeth Moss).

790dfb6e8856cf1fb232f20d31654820First shown on ABC, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town combined the best Rankin/Bass elements: genuine warmth; memorable characters that could be silly but not ridiculous; songs that advanced the story but stood on their own and an ideal voice cast. Fred Astaire proved just as elegant and engaging off camera as he was on. During the main titles, Astaire’s “Animagic” stop-motion figure even suggested his dance moves in a stylized rather than rotoscoped way.

Keenan Wynn made every line even better than it was. Paul Frees’ expert versatility was well represented, particularly in one scene in which he played the Burgermeister, Grindsley and Baby Claus all in one scene! Rounding out the cast was the underappreciated Joan Gardner, a fine children’s speaking and singing cast—plus the uncredited Mike Sammes Singers heard in “First Toymaker to the King.”

And then there’s Robie Lester in her signature role as Miss Jessica, the singer/actress who read stories to literally millions of children as the first Disneyland Story Reader in 1965; sang for Eva Gabor in two Disney features; looped so much dialogue for movies and TV, her credits are still being discovered; and had a pitch-perfect voice gracing more Disney records than any other performer.

ranbkin-bass-creditLester was delighted to work with Astaire (who wouldn’t be?) As she recalled to Goldschmidt, “He was not ego-driven and seemed very humble.” Her career was going strong through the mid-’70s, but ill health forced her early retirement. Thinking herself long forgotten by the early 21st century, she was enthralled when–through tenacious efforts by Goldschmidt, author Tim Hollis and your humble “Spinner”–she reconnected with loving fans during the last few years of her life.

Like so many Rankin/Bass TV soundtracks, the entire production of Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town works perfectly as pure audio. There is very little lost without the visuals, nice as they are. It is neither padded nor rushed. The music is a constant joy from beginning to end. There have been many excellent tributes and parodies of the Rankin/Bass style (Jon Favreau’s Elf is an especially unabashed love letter), but like Carl Stalling’s music in Warner cartoons, reproducing the Rankin/Bass “house sound” that Laws created is just as challenging as recreating the look and feel.

RBClausPromoLPRankin/Bass had a promotional recording pressed of Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town with a cover art by Paul Coker, Jr. for business reasons. The commercially released version appeared on MGM’s record label (MGM also released Frosty the Snowman as an LP). The MGM packaging claims that it is stereo, but there is no two-channel separation. Even though the music was initially recorded in stereo (see below), the final TV broadcast cut was mixed in mono. Whatever stereo rechanneling MGM might have done was minimal and did not harm the integrity of the recording. Rhino combined both the Claus and Frosty soundtracks on one CD in 1989.

In an interview for The Cartoon Music Book, Maury Laws expressed his admiration for Mickey Rooney’s grandiose vocal performance. “He had just the right quality for what we needed. Keenan Wynn was very good, too. I think, with that special, we just hit everything right.”

GIVE A LITTLE LISTEN
“What Better Way to Tell You” in Full Stereo
Courtesy of Rick Goldschmidt of miserbros.com, this is a rare stereo version (without the narration and dialogue) of the wedding song of Kris and Jessica. This version only appeared on a privately pressed vinyl LP that Rankin and Bass gave as a gift to their creative and business partners.

As seen in the film:


RooneyCmasLP-600

MERRY MICKLEMAS
Mickey Rooney
Timic Productions MICKEY-100 (Stereo / 2015 / 12” 33 1/3 RPM LP)

Released in 1979. Producer: J. Michelle Scott, SRS Records. Engineers: Dave Chiodo, Jerry Musgrove. Mastering: Masterdisk, NYC. Photography: Andrea Alberts. Production Coordination: ERH Productions. Design, Graphics: Nina Leto. Recorded at SRS International Recording Studios, Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Running Time: 25 minutes

Songs: “Mr. Wha De Ya Want,” “Mickey’s New Year,” “The Gift” by Mickey Rooney; “The Christmas Song” by Mel Torme, Robert Wells; “White Christmas” by Irving Berlin; “Silver Bells” by Jay Livingston, Ray Evans; “These Things Mean Christmas to Me” by Jerry Hall; Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year,” “Christmas at Home” by Ralph Norman Elsmo; “Jingle Bells” (Traditional).

Back in the 1970’s, a handful of legendary comedians and actors from the golden age found themselves in South Florida, which has been touted as “Hollywood East” since the days of Flipper and The Jackie Gleason Show. Gleason himself made a successful transition; as an avid golfer, gentlemen of leisure and marketing genius, he settled into a high-end Fort Lauderdale golf suburb called Inverrary and lived out his life in grand style. Some became pitchpersons for housing developments and condominiums, such as Milton Berle’s Fairways of Tamarac, Eve Arden’s Polynesian Gardens in Plantation and Mike Douglas’ Bonaventure.

godmothersWhile some very substantial movies and TV series were made in the Miami/Fort Lauderdale area over the decades, the ’60s and ’70s also yielded a crop of not-so-impressive beauts, some of which have become lucky enough to gain cult status, like Herschel Gordon Lewis’ Two Thousand Maniacs! filmed in St. Cloud (a rural community 30 minutes from Walt Disney World Resort). Filmed with ultra-low budgets, a lot of Florida features, including Jerry Lewis’ Hardly Working were expected to revitalize careers but didn’t quite turn the entertainment world on its ear.

Mickey Rooney spent several years making appearances in South Florida, including a stint as the “surprise” bag boy in local A&P commercials. He guested on talk programs like The Merv Griffin Show to promote his big plans with “the guys down in Lauderdale.” One of the fruits of his labor was a comedy called The Godmothers, in which he co-starred with Frank Fontaine and Jerry Lester. It’s easy and oh-so tempting to diss these movies. But these former headliners had debts and were also chasing their once-bright spotlights.

Rooney fared much better on vinyl during this period. Not that this album is the best Christmas record of all time, but it is a well-produced, fully orchestrated time capsule starring a talented icon of moviedom’s glory days giving it his best shot in the latter part of the 20th century. He sings ballads, expresses wishes for peace, performs a few character voices, and most of all acts like Mickey Rooney, which was his specialty.

The album was recorded at SRS Recording studios, a small but well-appointed studio located in a nondescript warehouse district in the Oakland Park suburb of West Fort Lauderdale. Almost like a James Bond set, the outside was disarmingly dank, but the interior of producer Michelle Scott’s interior office was lush and opulent, with custom rockwork walls and plush amenities. Among the SRS projects were two discs for Peter Pan Records: Jaws of the Shark and The Singing American Cowboy.

GIVE A LITTLE LISTEN
“Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year”
A peppy tune with a melodic resemblance to Bing Crosby’s “Mele Kalikimaka”, this song was released the same year as Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July, Rooney’s third and final turn as Santa for Rankin/Bass. This tune captures the same spirit and performance style.

19 Comments

  • Surprised that the song “My World is Beginning Today ” didn’t make the cut of the original soundtrack. It was a very beautiful song preformed by Robie Lester. And on the reissue by Rhino Records it was the entire special with the dialogue along with the songs including My World is Beginning Today and No More Toymakers to the King preformed by Paul Frees. Now the ABC Broadcast of Santa Claus is Coming to Town totally cut off both If You Sat On My Lap Today and My World is Beginning Today as well as cutting in half No More Toymakers to the King and the very beautiful What Better Way to Tell You to make room for more commercial while ABC Family shows the entire songs while cutting several scenes of the special.
    I wish they came out with a CD version of the soundtrack of Santa Claus is Coming to Town featuring all the songs minus the dialogue and instrumental versions of the songs.

    • The MGM soundtrack and the Rhino reissue of it did have “My World is Beginning Today” because I’ve spent most of my life listening to it. However, it doesn’t show up on any compilations as it’s not specifically a Christmas song. And what a shame, as it is a great song and flawless performance.

      Alas, TV is not the best place to see the special because it’s been edited for years, depending on the channel. Sometimes they’ll include “My World” but cut it shorter. Songs often suffer the cutting room floor in musicals on broadcast TV. But the DVD is very accessible and relatively inexpensive, as well as the stream.

      BTW, the new Rankin/Bass/Dreamworks Blu-ray with this special and several more (including “Cricket on the Hearth” is available. However. if you bought the new Blu-ray, there is a fade out in the Kringle scene. The disc can be replaced by calling 1-888-223-4369.

  • SANTA CLAUS IS COMIN’ TO TOWN is my all-time favorite Christmas special. I’ve loved it ever since I was little. The songs are just awesome! I wish I could hear “Put One Foot in Front of the Other” in stereo!

  • Are you planning a “Frosty, the Snowman” article soon…it had its 45th anniversary lat year!

    • I will definitely do a Frosty Spin, but not sure if it will be this year. Thanks for the suggestion!

  • Earlier this year I bought a “package deal” of a dozen Christmas LPS on eBay that turned out to be a heck of a good deal, and it included an original vinyl copy of Mickey Rooney’s “Merry Merry Micklemas” in somewhat weatherbeaten condition (most of the others in the bunch were VG+.) What a wacko little gem it is though. This edition (fortunately?) does not have the cover pic of Mick in his union suit, but instead a stock photo cover of Christmas ornaments, which I’ve learned also appeared on a number of other short-press-run or “vanity” LPS (high school bands, etc.) There’s a b/w headshot of Rooney on the back cover though. Here’s a link to the cover in better condition than mine: https://imgur.com/zHBduTB
    My copy is on the SRS International label, number MS-004, manufactured by Nashville Record Productions, Inc. in Tennessee.

  • “Mickey Rooney spent several years making appearances in South Florida, including a stint as the ‘surprise’ bag boy in local A&P commercials.”

    For the record, The Mick also appeared as that bag boy in national A&P spots.

    Though I understand the exigencies of the (ever-changing) business of network television, I wish ABC and CBS wouldn’t trim the Rankin/Bass shows when they re-run them.

  • It’s tempting to draw a parallel between Rankin-Bass and Pixar (and maybe even Disney, although the length of that curve is longer): A ground-breaking hit; a series of follow-ups refining the formula (with sequels — even “Little Drummer Boy” got one); interesting experiments; and finally a slow fade from dominance as the formula elements gradually calcified.

    One of their final specials was a reboot of Santa, who had been pretty consistent over the years as part of a “Rudolf Universe”. It’s all very kid-friendly of course, but it was clearly moving towards the later Rankin Bass cel-animated fantasies (“Hobbit”, “Last Unicorn”, “Flight of the Dragons”).

    • Perhaps the last Rankin-Bass holiday special (produced by Rankin solo; apparently Jules Bass had died) was “Santa, Baby!” which aired on Fox over a decade ago, and featured the voices of Vanessa Williams, Gregory Hines, Patti LaBelle and Eartha Kitt. It certainly had the look of an R-B special, since Paul Coker Jr. was brought in once more to do the character designs.

    • Jules Bass is still with us, he mostly writes novels and children’s book.

    • Good to know!

  • Did Lester sing the song “She Never Felt Alone” which was a (mostly) dropped song from “The Arisocats” (and one I wish they kept in) ?

    • She sang it on the album. She also sang for Eva Gabor in “Scales and Arpeggios” in the movie and on the record. The Disney Legacy Collection released the vinyl songs on CD.

      http://cartoonresearch.com/index.php/disneys-the-aristocats-on-records/

      Robie also sang “Rescue Aid Society” for Eva Gabor in “The Rescuers”, the theme to “Thomasina” and was the soloist in the Sandpipers’ hit song, “Guanatnamera”.

  • I love how “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town” reflects the period in which it was made. Young Man Kringle looks very much like a ginger Glen Campbell. Santa is depicted as a counter culture figure representing a youth movement, defying unjust laws, winning over enemies by giving instead of fighting, going to jail, and letting his beard grow. Jessica gets a little groovy during her song (edited out of the broadcast version) when she literally lets her hair down. She might be the hottest depiction of Mrs. Claus in television history.

    But man, once she got married, Jessica really let herself go.

  • Great job Greg! I hope we are able to issue the colored vinyl, deluxe edition vinyl for next holiday season! I will keep you posted on that project! We launched our new campaign today for The Enchanted World of Rankin/Bass Documentary through indiegogo and we would want to interview you about Robie, the Rankin/Bass soundtracks, etc. We would also love to involve Jerry with the film 🙂

    • I agree, Rick! I’d love to see Greg and Jerry in the documentary as well as some of the Pixar people.

    • I can only quote Kris Kringle: “Goll…lee…hee.” Love to do it. Thanks!

  • 12/9/15
    RobGems.ca Wrote:
    The soundtrack is mono with slight re-enhancement for stereo with a rather bass-like tone. MGM fooled a lot of record buyers in the mid 1960’s by issuing some fake re-channeled stereo albums (particularly ones by British Invasion groups like Herman’s Hermits and The Animals) from 1964-67 labeling them on the sleeves as “Sounds Great In Stereo” (not!) By 1970, MGM stopped using this tactic. Always nice to hear Robie Lester’s lovely voice. She was gorgeous as Miss Jessica on the ABC special. I’m always disappointed whenever re-runs edits her scenes of visually letting her hair down in psychedelic colors to the tune of “My World Is Beginning Today”. It’s weird how Rankin-Bass used different models for Mrs. Santa Claus in various holiday specials (indeed the models for Jessica on “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”, as “Mama” on “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer”, and as the kindly Shirley Booth modeled Mrs. Claus on “The Year Without A Santa Claus” don’t look at all alike one another. You’d think that Santa was married to three different women during different time periods!)

  • Trivial footnote: I noticed how The King with the diamond-shaped glasses (shown in the Kringles’ book) is also the doctor who fixes the Burgermeister’s foot and is seen again (still the doctor, I assume) as a parent whose home is invaded by toy-seeking soldiers. Wondered if there was some backstory where the monarchy fell from power (thus no more First Toymakers to the King) and the heir to the throne grew up to become a village doctor.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *