ANIMATION SPIN
December 3, 2019 posted by Greg Ehrbar

Rankin/Bass’ “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” on Records

The soundtrack to the highly-rated 1976 CBS special launched the first partnership between Disneyland Records and Rankin/Bass and helped open new horizons for the label.

Rankin/Bass Present
‘TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS

Complete Story and Original Soundtrack
Buena Vista Records #1367 (12” 33 1/3 RPM / Mono)

Released in September 1976. Album Producer: Jymn Magon. TV Special Producer/Directors: Arthur Rankin, Jr., Jules Bass. Writer: Jerome Coopersmith. Musical Director: Maury Laws. Character Design: Paul Coker, Jr. Children’s Vocal Direction: Lois Winter. Sound Effects: Tom Clack. Sound Engineers: John Curcio, Don Hahn. Running Time: 24 minutes.

Voices: Joel Grey (Joshua Trundle/Narrator); George Gobel (Father Mouse/Narrator); Tammy Grimes (Albert Mouse); John McGiver (Mayor of Junctionville); Allen Swift (Santa Claus); Pat Bright (Sarah Trundle); Bob McFadden (Substation Operator, Councilmen, Handyman); Christine Winter, Scott Firestone (Young Trundles).

Songs: “Give Your Heart a Try,” “Even a Miracle Needs a Hand,” “Christmas Chimes,” by Maury Laws, Jules Bass; “The Night Before Christmas” (Complete Poem) by Clement Moore, Maury Laws.

For almost twenty years, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas was one of the highest-rated CBS holiday specials. Several factors made this possible: the classic popularity of the poem, the special’s engaging characters, catchy score and a story that addressed cynicism and disbelief—right in the middle of the ’70s , when Watergate, Vietnam and other issues were pressing on adults, while kids were growing up in an increasingly uncertain world.

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas was also, in a sense, a “hammock show.” In television parlance, a hammock show rests between two hits and provides enough of its own power to bridge the gap. This is a difficult position, with many a half-hour sitcom not passing muster. One of the best examples of a great hammock was The Bob Newhart Show (1972-1978), which aired after The Mary Tyler Moore Show and before The Carol Burnett Show.

Along with Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer (originally on NBC and explored in this Animation Spin), How the Grinch Stole Christmas (see this Spin) and A Charlie Brown Christmas (in this Spin), Frosty the Snowman became a holiday viewing juggernaut for CBS (we did a Spin about him as well). A half-hour long, Frosty premiered on Sunday, December 7th, 1969, presumably at 7:30 p.m. eastern time after Lassie so it could compete with NBC’s Wonderful World of Disney.

Each year, Frosty found a compatible berth next to other family-oriented half-hours on CBS. But that second half-hour may have become increasingly difficult to fill with a kid-friendly show, as the seventies ushered in more permissive, socially introspective content. Emerging advertising demographic studies favored higher-spending urban audiences and the infamous CBS “rural purge” eliminated almost every show set out in the country or with a sentimental tone.

1974’s ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas became the perfect hammock after Frosty the Snowman, not only stylistically but also in its theme of ‘70s angst mixed with hope and humor. It must have worked, because ‘Twas kept viewers tuned to CBS after Frosty and then led them to the network’s two hours of primetime. ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas is a strong little film indeed.

Another factor to support this is the choice of writer. Instead of Rankin/Bass mainstays such as Romeo Muller, Jr. or William J. Keenan, ‘Twas was written by Jerome Coopersmith, who specialized primarily in action and drama (though he did write two holiday TV movies, including Henry Winkler’s An American Christmas Carol). Coopersmith’s name was more often associated with Hawaii Five-O, The Streets of San Francisco or his own CBS crime drama, The Andros Targets. Perhaps one reason he was selected for ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas was to give it more of a “’70s edge” as well as warmth and reassurance.

Another challenge was finding a storyline beyond the poem itself. The origin of the poem had already been made into an animated special six years earlier by Playhouse Pictures. That version, with the same title minus the “’Twas,” told a story suggesting how Clement Moore wrote the famous verse for his ill daughter. (The record album for this film is found in this Animation Spin.) The Rankin/Bass special tells a completely different story with the poem taking place after the resolution (Maury Laws told me with a chuckle that many Rankin/Bass specials had three endings).

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas is also unique among Rankin/Bass holiday specials because it has two narrators instead of one. Though Joel Grey stars in the “Told and Sung” role and recites the entire Clement Moore poem (set to a lovely original Maury Laws melody that is also woven throughout the underscore), George Gobel tells flashback portion of the story, explaining the predicament that leads up to the fateful night.

Before the third broadcast of the special, Disneyland Records released the complete soundtrack on its label. For Disney and Rankin/Bass fans, this was somewhat of an event. For the first time, both the Disneyland Records and Rankin/Bass logos, along with their copyrights, appeared on the same album cover.

“Rankin/Bass didn’t have the facilities to make and market their own records,” Jymn Magon explained, “So they approached us.” This album and Frosty’s Winter Wonderland (released the same year and explored in this Spin), were promoted by Disneyland’s people and shipped to stores along with other Disney records.

Like the Frosty’s Winter Wonderland LP, there is a slight edit on the ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas soundtrack so that the overture begins the album and the story goes on from there. The actual film begins with a “cold open,” getting the story underway to grab the viewer’s attention before starting the titles. It was felt the record would play better with this change. Having the complete soundtrack of this special before home video made it easily accessible. What a joy it was to have back then, instead of a homemade audio cassette made from a TV speaker!

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas was a high ratings winner for 19 years, until CBS commissioned a new Frosty sequel. Rankin/Bass had already produced Frosty’s Winter Wonderland for ABC, and their feature-length Rudolph and Frosty Christmas in July (first released to theaters as a Saturday Matinee attraction) was also broadcast on ABC as essentially a third Frosty film. Bill Melendez brought a “Peanuts” approach to 1992’s Frosty Returns, along with the popular John Goodman as Frosty (and a very pre-Mad Men Elisabeth Moss) in the voice cast.

Nevertheless, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas enjoyed a long network run and continues to be shown on various cable channels, streaming and whatever form home video takes. The record album, while no longer available except through other collectors, is a landmark. It laid the groundwork for the vast number of Disneyland and Buena Vista recording partnerships that followed, from the Grammy-nominated Rankin/Bass Production of The Hobbit (see this Spin), Garfield and Peanuts, to Star Trek, E.T. and Indiana Jones. It must also be remembered that the very first partnership between LucasFilm and Disney was the Star Wars Buena Vista Records, years before the Star Tours ride and everything else since.

“It was all started by a groove.”

GIVE A LITTLE LISTEN
“Even a Miracle Needs a Hand”

Here is Joel Grey performing the signature song, in which Joshua Trundle expresses the philosophy of faith and hope that extends beyond the story within the musical itself and into the real world of those watching (as great songs do). No one was more surprised than Maury Laws when South Park did a “loving” tribute to the song on their Christmas episode. The characters even sang the “da-dadalah-dah’s.”

5 Comments

  • I see Allen Swift’s autograph on the album cover — very cool! I never owned the album and haven’t seen the special since it first came out, but the song brought back some sweet memories of munching popcorn in front of the TV with my family.

    Rankin/Bass might have decided not to assign the screenwriter/lyricist role to Romeo Muller Jr. after the box office failure of their 1973 live-action musical film “Marco!”, starring Desi Arnaz Jr. as Marco Polo and Zero Mostel as Kublai Khan, for which Muller wrote the screenplay and lyrics and also acted in a bit part. That movie is filled with unforgettable, and unbelievable, moments: chubby Jack Weston in a pink smock singing a ten-verse song about “Spaghetti”; sexy Cie Cie Win dressed like a dominatrix and singing a bouncy Maury Laws tune (“By Damn!”) in her best Ethel Merman Broadway foghorn voice; Desi showing off his dramatic acting chops by shouting the word “Therefore!” over and over at the top of his lungs; several numbers with a children’s chorus and, elsewhere, a dance number with strippers; Desi running out of breath and going out of tune at the end of every single line he sings; and of course, the inevitable Rankin/Bass stop-motion animated sequence telling the story of the Tree People, who are always very peaceful because they drink nothing but Peace Berry juice.

    I swear I am not making this up, and I am not high on Peace Berry juice! It’s a real movie, and I have the DVD!

  • What’s more off-putting: Santa with a neckbeard and rouge, or reindeer that resemble giant mice? (“Oh, the shame of it!”) How about buck teeth and dilated pupils for the entire cast?

    Not Paul Coker Jr’s finest (half) hour, IMO. Love the special, otherwise.

    • No reflection on you, but a relative of mine watched the special with us when it first aired and gave me such grief, harping about how those two design choices completely ruined the special. Never heard the end of it. I tried to defend it. No luck.it Is frustrating when an entire work is written off by a few details. As Dr. Smith says, “Oh, the pain.”

      I assumed Coker must have also designed the Cheet-Os mouse that appeared in commercials that appeared at the same time and chose emulate to the cute look. As for Santa, he may have been trying to be literal as the poem never mentions a mustache.

    • Probably what they were going for Greg, yet the rosy cheeks and nose always bugged me about this Santa, as I thought he had three noses!

  • I can’t believe this was so highly rated! I just remembered it as the special with the ugly looking Santa who was such a miserable a-hole that he punishd an entire town because of one letter.

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