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.
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.
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).
First 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.
Lester 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.
Rankin/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:
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.
While 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.