This time we look at how the legacy of this classic animated television special continued to impact music, theater, publishing—and even the loved ones of those who first created it.
MR. MAGOO’S A CHRISTMAS CAROL
Wonderland Book and Recording #00339 (7” 45 RPM Record) BC-339 (Cassette) (Mono)
Released in 1979. Based on the 1962 UPA TV Special, Adapted from Dickens by Barbara Chain. Recording Producer: Ralph Stein. Text Adaptation: Horace J. Elias. Running Time: 10 minutes.
Performers: Jim Backus (Mr. Magoo / Ebenezer Scrooge); Tom Cipolla (Narrator); Dyan Forest (Belle).
Thank for all your kind responses about last week’s exploration of Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol! Clearly there’s a sizable audience of all ages out there for this treasured gem, both as an animation property and a Broadway-level musical score.
This unforgettable special was rerun countless times in one form or another over the decades before making its transition to VHS and then to DVD. For Blu-ray it received a loving treatment for its 50th anniversary, coinciding with the second edition of Darrell Van Citters’ prized tome, The Making of Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol.
In its initial broadcast, there were a handful book tie-ins, but even years later, the interest in the special was such that scattered items continued to appear. In 1977, a trade paperback was released with an adaptation of the story by Horace J. Elias, illustrated with black-and-white film images. Horace J. Elias a name that might create strong emotions in Hanna-Barbera fans who saw the glory days of richly illustrated Golden Books of the ‘60s give way to less-elaborate storybooks and paperbacks of the ‘70s. These lesser volumes were all written by Elias and originating in Canada from Ottenheimer Publishers (many of Peter Pan’s Hanna-Barbera 45 RPM book and record sets were also done in this manner).
Elias also adapted a shorter children’s storybook version of Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (the title altered to Mr. Magoo’s A Christmas Carol) that retained the basic show-within-a-show concept of the special. The uncredited illustrator, perhaps because of rights issues or lack of reference materials at the time, did not use any of the character designs except for the suggestion of the cloaked Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
This storybook was produced by Wonderland Records (formerly Golden Records) as a read-along book packaged with either a cassette or 45 RPM record. Wonderland had previously released an album of six soundtracks from the Magoo TV cartoons on an album that we covered in this Spin. This time around, there was no soundtrack available (it had to have been much too expensive for a short recording such as this). Instead, the music is the same as is heard on many other Wonderland read-alongs of the time. The two performers are also Wonderland regulars, particularly Tom Cipolla, who had appeared on Golden and Wonderland records produced by Ralph Stein since the early ‘70s, including two albums in the role of Geoffrey Giraffe, the mascot for Toys ‘R Us.
The surprise is that Jim Backus was hired to play Magoo as Scrooge, perhaps for the first time since 1962. His name does not appear on the cover, but only on the record label. To speculate, printing his name on the package as advertising to help sell the product may have required an extra fee that Wonderland likely did not have. The hiring of an actor and the use of his/her name can be two different negotiations. To further speculate, UPA may not have allowed a licensee to use anyone else to play Magoo (at least this author does not recall hearing a sound alike except for impressionists on TV variety shows).
So in a way, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol did make its way on to records, but not to its fullest extent. Just as the original soundtrack album of Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol was released as a download, but not in its full glory. At least, most recently, a very elaborate and faithful graphic novel version graced comic and book stores. Who knows what might be next? One thing we do know is that Marie Callender sells Razzleberry Pies.
LOST IN THE STARS
UPC 7-00361-46425-1 (Stereo / Compact Disc available on CDBaby https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/robertalevitow] )
Available for download on amazon and iTunes
Released in 2018. Producer/Arranger/Engineer: Mitch Greenhill. Musicians: Carroll Ashby (Trombone); Paul Fleischer (Baritone Saxophone); Lisa Gutkin (Violin); Mitch Greenhill (Guitars, Programmed Samples, Etc.) Running Time: 29 minutes.
Abe Levitow Suite: “Winter Was Warm,” “Alone in the World” (from Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol) by Jule Styne, Bob Merrill; “Little Drops of Rain” (from Gay Purr-ee) by Harold Arlen, E.Y. Harburg.
Other Songs: “Lost in the Stars” (from Lost in the Stars) by Maxwell Anderson, Kurt Weill; “God Bless the Child” by Billie Holiday, Arthur Herzog, Jr.; “A Fool Such As I” by Bill Trader; “Malaika (My Angel)” by Fahidi William; Les Chemins De L’Amour” by Jean Anouilh, Ernest Poulenc; “My Last Go Round” by Rosalie Sorrels.The legendary animator in such classic shorts as Hair-Raising Hare, For Scent-imental Reasons and One Froggy Evening, co-director of The Phantom Tollbooth, director of Gay Purr-ee (which we discussed in this Spin and Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol was just known as “Dad” in the Levitow household.
So when he and his family gathered to watch the completed Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol special on the night of December 18th, 1962, it was a big event as it was to many viewer–but making cartoons was also “Dad’s job,” according to the fond memories his daughter, Roberta.
“Well… you know, we were kids,” she told me. “We didn’t understand the context, the reasons why it was special. We said, ‘Dad’s stuff is on TV tonight!’ we watched it and sat together as a family, but we didn’t understand what it meant to him or what it meant to the larger context— ‘first TV animated holiday special!.’ But we loved it. It was such a treat to talk to him about it. And then we’d watch it, of course, when it was repeated.
“You know, Darrell [Van Citters]—we call him ‘the divine Darrell’—helped us see what our Dad had done and what it meant in its time, the changes were going on at UPA, and so on. There were changes that were going on all over the animation world in terms of just the expense of doing those kinds of films. So he gave us very different eyes to look back on it.”
The “show-within-a-show” framing concept of Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol—in which Quincy Magoo was appearing in a hit Broadway musical and giving an acclaimed starring performance–provided for several nearsighted comic hijinks before and after the “show” to give viewers the Magoo they knew from TV and theatrical shorts; allowed for several wonderful commercial breaks in which the camera zoomed out from the stage to the applauding “theater” audience; established Quincy as a believable actor; and set the format for what would become The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo prime time series.
But beyond all that, tying the film to a theatrical event had a personal connection. “Our family went to the theater a lot.” Roberta recalled. “We grew up in the LA area, of course, and had tickets to the Mark Taper Forum. My parents were always going to the theater. My dad worked at the Northridge Theater Guild, building sets at one point in his life. He really enjoyed the theater himself.”
It’s just one of the reasons Roberta loves Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol. “I think it was a super-smart conceit to try to imagine. Why was this particular character in this particular story? It had a convention and gave permission to the songs being the songs. It was really smart and reflected Dad’s love for the theater.”
Little did Roberta know when she was watching Magoo and another of her father’s big 1962 UPA projects, Gay Purr-ee, how much theater would become her life. “I remember sitting next to him [during Gay Purr-ee] at one point—an apocryphal moment for me—and noticing that the rain didn’t fall in continuity from one scene to the next and I… mentioned it. He was not angry, he said, ‘Oh, that’s very observant of you.’ and I thought, ‘I’m gonna be a director when I grow up, ‘cause I noticed the rain didn’t fall!’”
Roberta did become a director, not in animation or film but of over fifty theatrical productions in New York and Los Angeles as well as Senior Program Associate-International with the Sundance Institute Theatre Program, but her latest project is called Theater Without Borders, a program connecting people with theater resources around the world.
But the music from her father’s animation continued to dance in her head. Her husband, renowned folk guitarist and composer Mitch Greenhill, frequently hosted gatherings of friends and family in which music and singing would play a part. For years, Roberta would work one or two Abe Levitow tunes into various occasions. These get togethers led to an album called Some French songs that is available here.
It was Mitch who encouraged her to record the “Abe Levitow Suite” on her second album, Lost in the Stars. “He knows how important my dad was in my life, and he’s an appreciator of music. He also agrees that these are really great songs and belonged in the company of other great songs.
“’Winter was Warm’ is just so beautiful. I know of women who are singing it in the cabaret scene in New York. It’s the one, I suppose, that has fallen into popular music the most. ‘Alone in the World’ has always been a favorite for me. I’m so fond of ballads and crooners, and these are a couple of the ballads that come from Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol. I didn’t choose to sing ‘Razzleberry Dressing!’ ‘Little Drops of Rain,” I love that one, too. Anything that Judy Garland sings. So gorgeous. She did take that into a more ‘pop’ context, because it is such a gorgeous song.”
Fans of Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol worldwide have wished and wondered why and/or when there might be a complete soundtrack album of the score, or maybe a full-fledged stage production. Roberta Levitow is among them. “There was interest in a stage production, a high level concert in New York. Everybody’s talked about it. What I remember finding out was that the rights were really complicated. I think there had been an attempt to actually do a draft and present it to the Styne estate.”
On December 15th, 2015, The Actors Fund, in association with Dreamworks Animation and actress/author Margaret Styne, (widow of Magoo lyricist Jule Styne) presented a New York stage oratorio version of Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol with Douglas Sills (Broadway’s Scarlet Pimpernel and of Little Shop of Horrors). Details on the presentation are here, but a key paragraph states. “It was a shrewd, expensive venture but now Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol with this book (adapted by Tom Pinckney from Barbara Steel’s [sic, should be Chain] teleplay) and these orchestrations should have a long future suitable to schools, community theatres, regional theaters, and even a Holiday return to Broadway. Everyone, all those stars and producers who attended, felt that way at the reception afterwards.”
As the daughter of the Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol director, Roberta Levitow is constantly meeting fans, including some famous ones. “Chris Rock loves it. Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick play it every year for their kids. Molly Ringwald showed up at the screenings that Darrell did and talked about how it was her family’s favorite film.
“You never say never. And sometimes it has to be long enough away that it’s special again to pay attention to it. It’s a beautiful, touching retelling of the story. It really is.”
(Special thanks to Darrell Van Citters and Les Perkins for their contributions to these last two Magoo articles.)
DEAR SPIN READERS,
This will be the final weekly Animation Spin. It can take hours, days, even weeks to create the kind of Spins you have come to enjoy. I cannot bring myself to deliver you less than that. But it is simply not feasible at this time. Please be assured that I have not run out of records or the desire to share their backgrounds and the talents behind them. There is still much to cover, so look for Animation Spin every other Tuesday in 2019.
Many thanks to all who have been reading, commenting and listening along! – Greg Ehrbar