A look at a springtime cartoon soundtrack album filled with rich, creamy storylines and a sweet bunny at its center, generously coated with superb voice work.
THE FIRST EASTER RABBIT
Complete Original TV Soundtrack
Rankin/Bass Promotional Album (Sunshine Biscuits) F4RM-0019 (12” 33 1/3 RPM / Mono)
Released in 1976. Producer/Directors: Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass. Teleplay: Romeo Muller. Musical Director: Maury Laws. Cover Art/Character Design: Paul Coker, Jr. Sound Effects: Tom Clack. Sound Technicians: Dave Iveland, John Curcio, Don Hahn. Running Time: 25 minutes.
Voices: Burl Ives (Narrator, G.B. Bunny); Robert Morse (Stuffy); Stan Freberg (Flops); Paul Frees (Spats, Zero, Santa Claus); Don Messick (Whiskers, Dr. Jonathan, Brrruce); Joan Gardner (Calliope, Elizabeth); Dina Lynn (Glinda); Christine Winter.
Songs: “There’s That Rabbit” by Maury Laws and Jules Bass; “Easter Parade” by Irving Berlin.
Rankin/Bass confused many a tot with three specials for three networks that told contradictory stories of the Easter Bunny’s origins: the stop-motion films Here Comes Peter Cottontail for CBS and The Easter Bunny is Comin’ to Town for ABC, and this hand-drawn half-hour for NBC.
At least one could reconcile the two stop-motion specials chronologically. Sunny Bunny develops into the iconic identity in The Easter Bunny is Comin’ to Town and Peter Cottontail simply seeks the already established position in his story.
The First Easter Rabbit completely rewrites the “origin”, borrowing a page or two from Margery Williams’ 1922 story, The Velveteen Rabbit. Little Glinda is given a plush bunny as a gift and names it Stuffy. Then she is stricken with an illness that necessitates all of her belongings to be burned, including Stuffy. But that night, a fairy named Calliope appears at random to assign Stuffy to become the Easter Bunny. He plys his trade in magical Easter Valley, but also joins a recovered Glinda in the “real world” for an Easter parade.
It sounds simple, but longtime Rankin/Bass writer Romeo Muller piled so many more situations and exposition into The First Easter Rabbit, one wonders if it was intended to fill a full hour. There are three crafty-but-lovable rabbits who hatch a plan to tunnel under the garden and grab carrots. There’s also a wizard named Zero who, with his blobby little snowball henchman Brrruce (one of R/B’s most appealing characters), steals the Easter Lily and brings winter to the valley.
Zero doesn’t get time to cause much trouble. Santa threatens to move away from their mutual North Pole hometown if Zero doesn’t return the lily (similar in tone to Santa’s threat to withhold presents from Professor Hinkle in Frosty the Snowman). Zero backs down for several reasons, chief among them the loss of Mrs. Claus’ home cooking (Frees surely ad libbed that wonderful line about missing out on “those little noodles.”)
In today’s context of fast-paced storytelling, the overlapping plotlines actually keep the special fresh. It’s got a great voice cast—including Stan Freberg in his sole Rankin/Bass role. So the best thing to do is to piggyback this show with the other two specials and play them as you fill baskets with treats and dunk hard-boiled eggs in fizzy Paas solutions, stopping every few minutes tell the little tots about the days when there were three TV networks and each wanted a Rankin/Bass special no matter how much they contradicted each other…
GIVE A LITTLE LISTEN
This rendition of the Irving Berlin classic follows Maury Laws’ two-tier song format, in which a few lyrics are spoken sung informally in an airy free tempo, before transitioning into a more structured, but gentle rhythm. Other examples of this in Rankin/Bass specials include “Winter Wonderland” in Frosty’s Winter Wonderland and “White Christmas” in The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow.
HERE COMES PETER COTTONTAIL
Mr. Pickwick Records SPC-5145 (12” 33 1/3 RPM / Stereo & Enhanced Mono)
Available for download on iTunes and amazon [http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00481WIYS/ref=dm_ws_sp_ps_dp]
Released in 1975. Producer: “Bugs” Bower. Musical Direction: “Bugs” Bower, Maury Laws, Warren Vincent, Lew Raymond. Running Time: 34 minutes.
Performers: Ben Zeppa, Bill Marine, Betty Wells, Ron Marshall, Norman Rose, Dorothy Season, Jim Pollack, The Overtones, The Playmates, Berlin Symphony Orchestra.
Songs: “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” by Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins; “The Little White Duck”; “A Tisket, A Tasket” (Traditional); “The Bunny Hop” by Ray Anthony and Leonard Auletti; “Rubber Duckie” by Jeffrey Moss; “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” by Allie Wrubel and Ray Gilbert; “Easter Parade” by Irving Berlin; “Quacky Duck”.
Stories: “Hetty the Hen” with Music by Warren Vincent, “Peter Rabbit and the Search for Flopsy’s Tale” with Music by Maury Laws, “The Ugly Duckling” with Excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.
The reason this album is included is Maury Laws, who worked with such budget labels as Cricket, Pickwick and Peter Pan in his early days as a New York composer. Another name associated with Laws’ work is Tom Pollack, who sang on Cricket Records and later became a partner in the music production firm Forrell, Thomas and Pollack, whose projects include the excellent Firestone Christmas albums and the songs in the first Rankin/Bass special, Return to Oz, for which Laws was an orchestrator. Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass worked in advertising before their partnership and FTP must have been among their associates in the early days.
The album itself, like a lot of the “Mr. Pickwick” records of the ‘70s, is a compilation of previously released single records from the Cricket library. Reissues of Cricket and Happy Time LPs, as well as a few new titles, rounded out the Mr. Pickwick catalog. Several of these records are now available for download—good news for those who had these records as kids and would like to revisit them without all the scratches.
The most notable track on the album, from the standpoint of today’s mores and issues, is an allegorical fable about racism called “Hetty the Hen,” in which a chicken inexplicably starts laying multi-colored eggs. The other animals shun her and her fellow hens refuse to lay eggs until she is removed. “We don’t want a ‘something like that’ living near,” they say. The sound quality and arrangements place “Hetty the Hen” somewhere in the ‘60s, in the midst of the civil rights movement. Several Mr. Pickwick compilations in the ‘70s and ‘80s continued to include this track, and the message still remains relevant within the deceptively simple context of a vintage “kiddie record”.
Also of note: “Rubber Duckie” sung by Ron Marshall, who we talked about a few weeks back; likable versions of standards like “Easter Parade”, “Bunny Hop” and the title track, and “The Ugly Duckling” narrated by master voice artist Norman Rose, who among many things, was a house announcer for NBC in the sixties.
GIVE A LITTLE LISTEN
“Peter Rabbit and the Search for Flopsy’s Tail”
Even though the orchestra is small in this cutesy musical story, you can hear the trademark accents and flourishes that would later distinguish Maury Laws’ work for Rankin/Bass. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the process of a great musician setting the groundwork for what would become his signature style.