A celebration of the talents that Jules Bass brought to the extraordinary partnership that endures through the wondrous works of Rankin/Bass.
A man who’s a dreamer and never takes leave
Who thinks of a world that is just make-believe
Will never know passion, will never know pain,
Who sits by the window will one day see rain.
If I want to change the reflection
I see in the mirror each morn
You mean that it’s just my election
To vote for a chance to be reborn?
If you’re wise, you’re very often acting like a fool to win your game
If you’re daft, just smile and act oblivious, you may even gain some fame!
If I could only get back to yesterday
Oh, the different things I’d do and say.
I’d be a different man if I had a second chance, wouldn’t you, wouldn’t you?
I’d make a special plan if I had a second chance, wouldn’t you, wouldn’t you?
The above lyrics from The Hobbit (1977), Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970), The Daydreamer (1966), and Here Comes Peter Cottontail (1971) are a few of the many ways that Jules Bass has woven his talents into the lives of countless individuals for over half a century and perhaps until the end of time.
Jules Bass (1935-2022) was one of the two dynamic visionaries behind in Rankin/Bass Productions, the organization TV Guide called the leader in the field of holiday specials. The small yet prolific company was also a contender in Saturday morning programming, theatrical films, TV movies, and recordings.
Like so many partnerships, the two were very different in personality and general contributions, though their duties overlapped. Arthur Rankin Jr., (1924-2014) had been an art director at ABC before going independent. Rankin was the more outgoing of the two, most often fielding publicity about the projects in addition to supervising animation overseas. Bass was more subdued and intense, a Madison Avenue copywriter imbued with the savvy needed to shape ideas and skills needed to tell stories.
As a copywriter, your author can attest that, on occasion, art directors write and copywriters art direct, depending on the project and work styles involved. Agencies have creative directors who specialize in either words or visuals but, at the director level, preside over both. Rankin and Bass operated similarly, housed in a New York office suite and contracting most of their resources.
While Rankin was adept at the visuals, he could also take on a feature screenplay, which he did for 1966’s ambitious theatrical feature, The Daydreamer. Bass handled directing duties on The Daydreamer, as well as two other features, The Wacky World of Mother Goose (1967) and the seminal classic Mad Monster Party (1967). They also shared a pseudonym; Julian P. Gardner, often used by Bass and occasionally used by Rankin for various scripting and lyric projects.
Writer/producer Peter Bakalian worked at Rankin/Bass starting in the eighties with the hit 1985 ThunderCats series all the way to the final special in 2006, Santa Baby! (which he co-produced and co-wrote). He got to know key people who had been part of the legacy over the years. “They each had tremendous reputations for integrity. They were two of the most respected people in the business.
“Arthur and Jules worked incredibly well together as long as Rankin/Bass existed,” writer/producer Peter Bakalian told me. “They were like brothers. Both were directly involved with various aspects of the projects throughout the process.”
One of Jules Bass’ outstanding contributions to popular culture is his talent for songwriting. Like many advertising copywriters, Bass surely dabbled in writing songs and jingles. He was able to compose (the ThunderCats theme was among his compositions) but his most prolific and enduring holiday contributions are the lyrics he wrote to the music of Maury Laws (1923-2019).
Laws, who did very few interviews, told me that it was Bass who brought him into the fold. “I first met Jules Bass in 1962 when I was writing for TV commercials. He was a writer for a New York advertising agency and I was doing a lot of things for companies like General Electric.”
They became a songwriting team beginning with the 1966 live-action/animated feature The Daydreamer, they wrote individual songs and/or complete scores for Cricket on the Hearth; The Little Drummer Boy; The Little Drummer Boy Book II; Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town; The Year Without a Santa Claus; Here Comes Peter Cottontail; The Easter Bunny is Comin’ to Town; The First Easter Rabbit; Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey; The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow, The Wind in the Willows, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, Pinocchio’s Christmas; and many other specials, series, and features. In 1977 Rankin/Bass won the Peabody Award for The Hobbit, for which Bass adapted the Tolkien verse to Laws’ music.
Those of us who love these films have our own favorites, but the most celebrated songs are: “The Heat Miser/Snow Miser Song,” and “Put One Foot in Front of the Other.” I might add “My World is Beginning Today,” “Daydreamer,” “One Star in the Night,” “I Believe in Santa Claus,” “Elbow Room,” “Even a Miracle Needs a Hand,” and three whose lyrics are listed at the start of this article: “The Greatest Adventure,” “Who Can Tell,” and “If I Could Only Get Back to Yesterday.”
Almost every Rankin/Bass special is a marvel of tight storytelling with minimal padding, allowing even the songs to suit the situation rather than seem superfluous. “Jules always worked very hard to achieve a rhythmic pace in the shows,” Laws recalled. “He would work out exposure sheets for every section that I would later fill in. We created virtually the entire soundtrack before the animation was done.”
Word of mouth among the show business heavyweights was also good for Rankin/Bass; that was how they managed to cast some stars who never worked in animation before (including Vincent Price, Fred Astaire, James Cagney, José Ferrer, Danny Kaye, and Danny Thomas. Some of these performers could be quite challenging in the wrong hands, but Laws said, “One of the things Jules and I always did was to make the celebrities comfortable with the material. We wrote the songs just for them… I think, for that reason, the stars always liked what we created for them. We never had anyone come back to us later and tell us they didn’t like a song.”
Bass and Rankin even made visits to Washington to testify about television violence when various groups were attacking the medium. The Rankin/Bass specials were careful to avoid excessive violence and usually ended with a villain’s redemption. Laws recalled veteran screenwriter Romeo Muller referring to all of them as “the Dickens of our time.”
This kind of care and remarkable foresight made the work of Rankin/Bass some of the most perennially popular material still in circulation. There is an annual tug-of-war between media distributors about which platforms will be able to run the most popular shows during holiday time.
Our own Jerry Beck reports that the major studios who control the copyrights find that many of the Rankin/Bass properties continue to increase in appeal and are surefire winners – so much so that two entertainment titans, Universal and Warner, have joined forces to create the first-ever DVD set to combine eighteen pre-1970 and post-1970 specials into one deluxe set: The Complete Rankin/Bass Christmas Collection.* Though this set went into production before the world lost Jules Bass, it is surely a de facto tribute to his legacy.
The greatest adventure is what lies ahead
Today and tomorrow are yet to be said
The chances, the changes are all yours to make
The mold of your life is in your hands to break.
*NOTE: Neither Warner nor Universal control the rights to the Rankin/Bass 2001 hour-long animated special, Santa Baby! (which includes the voices of Eartha Kitt and Gregory Hines), making the new DVD set technically incomplete. The DVD is out of print as of this writing, but it is available on several streaming services.