A crystal-clear look at the jolly happy soul, whose TV specials melted the network competition and whose albums–particularly his Disney LP–sold like hotcakes.
FROSTY THE SNOWMAN
The Original TV Sound Track
A Half-Hour Special in Animation
MGM Records SE-4732 (12” 33 1/3 RPM LP / Enhanced Mono)
Released in 1970. TV Special Producer/Directors: Arthur Rankin, Jr., Jules Bass. Writer: Romeo Muller. Musical Director: Maury Laws. Running Time: 25 minutes.
Voices: Jimmy Durante (Narrator); Jackie Vernon (Frosty); Billy DeWolfe (Professor Hinkle); June Foray (Karen, Teacher, Incidental Voices); Paul Frees (Santa Claus, Traffic Cop, Ticket Clerk, Incidental Voices).
Songs: “Frosty the Snowman” by Steve Nelson, Jack Rollins.
“Frosty the Snowman” was a follow-up smash from Gene Autry, who had a succession of children’s and holiday records thanks to Columbia producer Hecky Krasnow. We owe Krasnow a debt of thanks for the original recordings of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Frosty,” “Peter Cottontail,” “Nuttin’ for Christmas” and many more songs we still enjoy today—but more about giving credit where credit is due later. (Interestingly, Autry didn’t want to record Rudolph at all. Read about this and more in this highly recommended book by Krasnow’s daughter Gail.)
The song was released in 1950, but it wasn’t until 1969 that Rankin/Bass produced it as a half-hour special for CBS, having enjoyed success with Rudolph and The Little Drummer Boy. Frosty was a ratings bonanza year after year. The following year, ABC broadcast Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town and MGM released both soundtracks at the same time. (We explored the Santa soundtrack here).
For Frosty, a Hollywood cast was used with the great Jimmy Durante narrating. Durante had already recorded a delightful version of the song in the ‘50s when his Vaudeville days were behind him and he was a big star of film and early TV. Today there are generations who may only know him from the special (Rankin/Bass may help sustain the memory of several Hollywood and Broadway legends, and perhaps encourage interest in finding out more about them).
The great character actor Billy DeWolfe, then a scene stealing regular on the CBS sitcom, Good Morning, World (co-starring a pre-Laugh-In Goldie Hawn), gets to say his signature “Busy, busy, busy!” line as Professor Hinkle. Paul Frees gets all the comic gold he can from a small role as a ticket agent.
June Foray, whom we sadly lost this year, plays the teacher whose limited budget (or questionable taste) brings into the classroom a lousy performer—as well as a liar and thief—but in Rankin/Bass tradition, he reforms (sort of).
Foray’s performance as Karen is preserved on this record, since it was later changed on the film soundtrack to that of an uncredited young actor. Most of Foray and Frees’ “kid voices” still exist in the final show, however, though the principal male and female lines were overdubbed.
And now, a few words on behalf of Romeo Muller, who gave us all the characters in Frosty the Snowman except for Frosty himself, as well as 95% of all the characters in the holiday specials that generations have shared for years.
When Jack Kirby, co-creator of some of Marvel’s greatest characters was posthumously honored as a Disney Legend earlier this year, it was a truly wonderful gesture, generous far beyond the issue of who-really-did-what and who-is-entitled-to-what. It’s about how one is to be remembered once their creations outlive them. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing for content may move from “house to house,” but it’s a good thing to make proper note of those who made that material so consistently appealing.
Few realize that classic Christmas cartoon characters such as Hermie the Elf, Yukon Cornelius, Charlie-in-the-Box, the Heat and Snow Misers, Professor Hinkle and Burgermeister Meisterburger are from the pen of Romeo Muller, who created them for Rankin/Bass specials. In the last several decades, due to historians like Rick Goldschmidt, Jerry Beck and Jim Korkis and such filmmakers as Wes Anderson and Tim Burton, the name Rankin/Bass is an adjective for a specific kind of animation. To TV fans, it’s the moniker for the type of TV special that no other entity has ever duplicated in such consistent quantity.
Romeo Muller was a work-for-hire writer who fleshed out the songs that made songwriters and famous singers very wealthy. While he may not have been a pauper, he could not have realized the affluence of Johnny Marks or Gene Autry, whose names are associated with the song, but not all the characters or the surrounding story—including the Island of Misfit Toys. That’s how the business works, and that’s fine. It’s just that as time goes by and you see live stage productions that follow Muller’s scripts virtually word-for-word, and Maury Laws’ musical arrangements almost note-by-note, a simply “with thanks to” in the small print would be nice and perhaps not legally binding to any compensation. We’re not talking about back payments, since these folks were paid, we’re just asking that they are not forgotten. Sort of like Hector in Pixar’s Coco.
FROSTY’S WINTER WONDERLAND
Complete Story and Original Soundtrack
Disneyland Records #4732 (12” 33 1/3 RPM LP / Mono)
Released in 1976. TV Special Producer/Directors: Arthur Rankin, Jr., Jules Bass. Writer: Romeo Muller. Musical Director: Maury Laws. Running Time: 25 minutes.
Voices: Andy Griffith (Narrator); Jackie Vernon (Frosty); Shelley Winters (Crystal); Dennis Day (Parson Brown); Paul Frees (Jack Frost).
Songs: “Frosty the Snowman” by Steve Nelson, Jack Rollins; “Winter Wonderland” by Felix Bernard, Richard Smith.
ABC nabbed Frosty for this 1976 sequel even though CBS ran the annual original. It’s strange that CBS didn’t act faster, but 1974’s ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas performed so well for the network, perhaps it was deemed unnecessary. In 1992, CBS dumped ‘Twas (ker-plunk, ker-plooey) and added Frosty Returns, a pleasant Bill Melendez take on the story with John Goodman and a young Elisabeth Moss.
Frosty’s Winter Wonderland, however, seems like the genuine article, with the Paul Coker designs and the voice of Jackie Vernon, plus Dennis Day (whom we discussed in this Spin) and Shelley Winters as Crystal (who returned for Rudolph and Frosty Christmas in July, which was planned as a theatrical feature).
It’s Paul Frees who dominates the story in the role of the most narcissistic Jack Frost on film—that is, until Martin Short assumed the mantle in The Santa Clause III. Jack Frost may be the only Rankin/Bass character with the same basic design to appear in two different specials on two different networks (ABC and NBC) in two different animation formats (cel and stop-motion), with two different personalities (adversary and heroic lead).
In 1979, Rankin/Bass produced the hour-long musical Jack Frost starring Robert Morse, narrated by Buddy Hackett. It’s one their finest specials, rich in detail and memorable characters (Paul Frees’ Kubla Kraus character is certifiably insane), with a romantic, bittersweet story and of course, fine original songs.
Even though Jack Frost is not among the most recognized holiday specials, it must be somewhat popular with audiences, it still shows up on the “25 Days of Christmas” on Freeform (formerly ABC Family) schedule. Even when it fell into public domain and poor-quality copies were sold cheaply, high quality videos were made available, a testament to its durability. If only there was a soundtrack album!
Frosty’s Winter Wonderland was one of three Rankin/Bass properties that were produced, marketed and released by Disneyland and Buena Vista Records under the razor-sharp supervision of the wondrous Jymn Magon. The other two were the aforementioned ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and the very first filmed version of The Hobbit, you can find in “my precioussss” Spin over here.
It’s always interesting to hear how songs and music were gently integrated through these half-hour specials. Jack Frost also gets a peppy little theme of his own.