A tribute to the stop-motion classic starring Danny Kaye, Paul Frees, Casey Kasem and Vincent Price, in his first animated role.
ABC in Association with
Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass
HERE COMES PETER COTTONTAIL
A Musical Easter Fable
Told and Sung by Danny Kaye
Videocraft International WR-4767 (12” 33 rpm LP / Mono)
Album Released for Promotion Only in 1970. Producer/Directors: Arthur Rankin. Jr., Jules Bass. TV Series Associate Producer: Basil Cox. Writer: Romeo Muller, based on the Book The Easter Bunny Who Overslept by Priscilla and Otto Fredrich. Musical Director: Maury Laws. Editorial Supervision: Irving Goldress. Sound and Effects Recording: Jim Harris, John Boyd. Running Time: 51 minutes.
Voices: Danny Kaye (Seymour K. Sassafras/Narrator, Colonel Bunny, Antoine); Casey Kasem (Peter); Vincent Price (Irontail); Paul Frees (Colonel Bunny’s Advisor, Ben the Chicken, Dad at Thanksgiving); Joan Gardner (Mother’s Day Mom, Madame Esmeralda the Witch, Bonnie Bonnet, Hat Store Owner); Iris Rainer (Donna); Jeff Thomas, Greg Thomas (Fourth of July Kids); The Mike Sammes Singers.
Songs: “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” by Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins; “The Easter Bunny Never Sleeps,” “If I Could Only Get Back to Yesterday,” “Improvise,” “The Puzzle of Life” by Maury Laws, Jules Bass.
Instrumental: “Waltz for a Witch” (from Mad Monster Party)
Fifty years ago, on the heels of one of their finest Christmas TV specials, an inimitable group of staff and freelance creative people who made up the Rankin/Bass animation (and occasional live-action) core team made lightning strike twice.
Here Comes Peter Cottontail, which premiered on the CBS network Sunday night, April 4, 1971, has proven to have as comparable a degree of evergreen appeal to new audiences and lasting attachment to its fans as Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. That special, which we explored in a recent Animation Spin https://cartoonresearch.com/index.php/santas-been-comin-to-town-for-50-years-on-tv-and-records/, made its debut only three months earlier on ABC.
There can be little doubt that both projects overlapped, starting with the music. Composer/arranger Maury Laws and co-producer/director Jules Bass created a memorable original score for each, recorded partially in London with The Mike Sammes Singers (also heard throughout the fondly remembered Saturday morning series Tomfoolery, which was animated for Rankin/Bass by England’s Halas and Batchelor studio). Of Peter Cottontail, TV Guide said it had, “one of the best scores in children’s special history.”
The 1971 special featuring nothing less than the best in every detail, visually presented in the crisp, iconic style of the great Paul Coker, Jr. Romeo Muller, this time unburdened by the need to craft a “legend” for the origin of the Easter Bunny, had a wonderful premise to build upon—the 1957 children’s book The Easter Bunny Who Overslept by Priscilla and Otto Fredrich.
In the book, it is the Easter himself bunny (not Peter) who sleeps through Easter. and spends the rest of the year trying unsuccessfully to give away eggs on other holidays. At the North Pole, Santa Claus gives him a golden clock so he won’t oversleep again.
As Muller did for Rudolph—and deserved far more credit for doing so—the prolific writer added the concept of an Easter Bunny election and the time-traveling “Yestermorrowbile.” Just as he had created Hermie the elf, Yukon Cornelius and the Island of Misfit Toys for Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Muller this time gave the world whimsical characters such as the Willy Wonka-like Mister Sassafras (Danny Kaye); brave and loyal caterpillar Antoine (also Kaye); a hat with Mary Tyler Moore “Oh, Rob!” hysterics named Bonnie (Joan Gardner); and kooky “gal-next-door” Madame Esmeralda the witch (also Gardner). Also by Gardner is a small child voice reminiscent of her “Tiny Tim Mc Boing-Boing” in Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol.
To accompany Gardner’s Esmeralda and the Halloween sequence, Maury Laws turned back to his score for the Mad Monster Party and wrote a new arrangement of his “Waltz for a Witch” from the earlier Rankin/Bass feature film.
Blissfully chewing the scenery and spewing it in all directions is Vincent Price, marking his first voice acting performance in an animated film. As January Q. Irontail, a hare so bitter and twisted he could be in the Marvel villain universe, Price’s Irontail revels in his evil cheating and can’t separate his hatred of others from himself. Unlike most Rankin/Bass villains, we never see Irontail have a change of heart (nor is he destroyed or diminished by the passage of time).
Instead, after the characters parade down for bunny trail finale, Irontail is seen “doing time” in community service by sweeping up the Animagic waste left behind. Of course, it’s all in fun. Moments later, we get a rare Rankin/Bass treat and see him with the whole cast, gathered for a curtain call at the end.
Danny Kaye was a great favorite of Arthur Rankin. The entertainer accompanied the producer to Japan, where he was able to see the progress of the animation and for the artists to study some of his movements as reference. (There is a section about Rankin and Kaye in the book, Nobody’s Fool written by Martin Gottfried.) Kaye also starred in another Rankin/Bass special, The Emperor’s New Clothes, which was actually a pilot for a series called The Enchanted World of Danny Kaye. Perhaps the network didn’t buy the series because it thought audiences would only want to see such things during the holidays.
With a versatile vocalist like Danny Kaye in the cast, Paul Frees was not afforded the volume of voice roles he had in Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, but his presence is always a plus. Casey Kasem was relatively new to animation at the time. Well-known to radio listeners in Southern California for years and an occasional guest actor on TV, he was becoming a familiar voice on Saturday mornings. Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? and Josie and the Pussycats were both hit CBS series when this special premiered. His American Top 40 radio show was only a year old, so his career was just ascending.
Sadly, to this day there is no officially licensed soundtrack album of Here Comes Peter Cottontail released for retail sales. The ABC promo album, a slightly edited “lift” of the soundtrack but still mixed and edited for vinyl, was never made available beyond business associates and potential sponsors and likely also to persuade record companies to convince them to release it commercially. One reason for their passing could have been that the Easter merchandise sales window is too short for such an album to sell enough copies to justify its costs.
It’s a shame that a legitimate LP or CD has yet to see the light of day. This is a great cast, a great score and it has all the holidays! There’s always hope. Miracles happen most every day.
HERE COMES PETER COTTONTAIL
The Mr. Pickwick Players (Various Pickwick Artists)
Mr. Pickwick Records SPC-5145 (12” 33 rpm LP / Stereo & Mono)
Download available 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: 35 minutes.
Performers Include: 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” (uncredited).
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.
While the Steve Nelson/Jack Rollins song is actually called “Peter Cottontail,” one has to wonder whether Pickwick very wisely added the words “Here Comes” to the album’s title as a subtle tie-in, or at least a nod, to the Rankin/Bass special. We’ll never know, it’s difficult to recall any other records that also included “Here Comes” in the seventies when the special was still on CBS.
In his early days as a New York arranger/orchestrator/composer for hire, Maury Laws worked extensively with record companies that released hundreds of discs under numerous labels. Pickwick’s included Cricket, Happy Time and Mr. Pickwick; Peter Pan had Rocking Horse, Diplomat, Parade, Prom, Promenade, and more.
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. Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass worked in advertising before their partnership, so they were probably familiar with FTP as a music resource for commercials and industrial projects.
When he started Videocraft International, Rankin hired Forrell, Thomas and Pollack to work on The New Adventures of Pinocchio and an album for that TV series was released on their “FTP label (see this Spin). Rankin and Bass also turned to FTP when General Electric sponsored their first Rankin/Bass TV special, Return to Oz, Maury Laws did the orchestration, as he did for FTP’s Firestone Christmas albums.
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. The earliest recording is “The Ugly Duckling” from 1953 and the most recent is “Rubber Duckie,” in true stereo, from 1970. Several of these records have been made available for download.
“Hetty the Hen” is notable as one of the early examples of children’s records with social messages. It was an original Cricket musical story released in 1955 as the “B” side to “Peter Cottontail.” In this short fable, Hetty lives happily on a farm until the day she, for no apparent reason, begins laying eggs of different colors than usual. The other animals shun Hetty. Her fellow hens stop laying eggs until she is taken away, saying, “We don’t want a ‘something like that’ living near.” Suddenly “everyone wanted to be Hetty’s friend.” As if to address their superficial acceptance of her and her eggs, Hetty delivers a heartfelt speech about being accepting differences. Pickwick Records kept “Hetty the Hen” in circulation on Happy Time label in the sixties and on numerous LP compilations in the seventies.
The most recent recording on the album is 1970’s “Rubber Duckie” sung by Ron Marshall, another Rankin/Bass alumnus from The Year Without a Santa Claus and The Easter Bunny is Comin’ to Town. The earliest track comes from 1953: “The Ugly Duckling” narrated by master voice artist Norman Rose, who among many things, was a house announcer for NBC in the sixties.
This article is an extensively revised version of an earlier post.