18 Facts About Your Favorite Christmas TV Specials

DreamWorks Classics
DreamWorks Classics / DreamWorks Classics

Here are some behind-the-scenes tidbits about a handful of holiday small-screen favorites.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

1. Which came first, the TV special or the song? Johnny Marks wrote the song in 1949. He was the brother-in-law of Robert L. May, the Montgomery Ward copywriter who’d created the story of the red-nosed reindeer for a department store coloring book. Marks had a good ear for a catchy holiday tune and was responsible for many of the Christmas classics we still hear today, including “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “A Holly Jolly Christmas.” Nevertheless, he was reluctant at first to allow his tune to be the subject of a TV special – he thought that over-exposure might equal a decrease in record sales. Luckily he lived just down the street from Arthur Rankin, of Rankin/Bass fame, who eventually managed to change Marks’ mind.

2. Mario Muller, the screenwriter for the TV special, stated in an interview that the reason his script deviated so much from the original story is that he was unable to find a copy of May’s book at the time. Several of the characters, including Hermey the wannabe dentist, were named after Muller’s real-life friends.

3. The first few drafts of the screenplay did not include the character of Sam the Snowman. In fact, the songs sung by Sam in the final version were originally performed by Yukon Cornelius. But General Electric felt that the production needed a “name” in order to sell it to a network, and Burl Ives was brought on board.

Frosty the Snowman

DreamWorks Classics

4. The song came first in this instance, too; in fact the tune was written by Jack Nelson and Steve Rollins in 1950 specifically as a means of capitalizing on the success of Gene Autry’s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” The record wasn’t as huge as “Rudolph” sales-wise, but Frosty’s story was nevertheless perpetuated via Golden Books and Dell Comics.

5. Despite a long career in radio and film, legendary comedian Jimmy Durante’s memory has been primarily kept alive all these years thanks to his role as the narrator in this Christmas special. Durante loved children, and is famous for turning down a performance fee at the Eagles International Convention in 1961. When asked by the organizers “What can we do, then?” Durante replied in his trademark Brooklynese: “Help da kids.”

6. First aired in 1969, Frosty was the first Rankin/Bass Christmas special to utilize traditional animation (versus the stop-motion method used in their other projects). Paul Coker, Jr., a long-time MAD magazine illustrator, provided both the main character and background drawings.

Santa Claus is Coming to Town

DreamWorks Classics

7. Yet again, the song came first. In this case, way first: J. Fred Coots and Henry Gillespie wrote it in 1932, at a time when sheet music outsold records. The song only received national exposure in the first place because Eddie Cantor, Coots’ employer at the time, reluctantly sang it (at the urging of his wife) on his radio show in late November 1934. Despite the music publishers’ dire warning that songs aimed at children were doomed to fail, Cantor’s performance sent the sheet music for the song flying off retailers’ shelves and inspired countless other popular artists to record it.

8. How does a 71-year-old hoofer keep his name in the spotlight many years after MGM had ceased producing big-budget musicals and his aging bones have begun to betray him? Voiceover work! That's how Rankin/Bass was able to secure Fred Astaire for the role of the mailman/narrator for their 1970 special. R/B’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer had been airing annually since 1964, so Astaire agreed to this project, rightly assuming that it had “legs.” Rankin/Bass also benefited because even older adults with no kids at home tuned in to see and hear the Fred Astaire they remembered so fondly.

A Charlie Brown Christmas

United Feature Syndicate

9. In 1963, TV producer Lee Mendelson filmed a documentary about Charles Schulz and the daily process involved in creating his Peanuts comic strip. The Peanuts documentary never sold, but Coca-Cola execs happened to see it and asked Mendelson if he’d be interested in doing an animated Charlie Brown Christmas special. Within a few days, Mendelson and Schulz had the outline of a script ready, with notes like “sad Christmas tree,” “school play,” and “ice skating” scribbled in the margins.

10. When it came to actually producing the special, Charlie Brown was truly a problem child. Unlike most of the other characters, Charlie Brown’s head was completely round, which made it difficult for the animators to indicate movement from side to side. Snoopy, on the other hand, was the easiest character to manipulate, which is why they had fun making him do everything from dancing the jitterbug to impersonating a vulture.

11. When CBS executives previewed A Charlie Brown Christmas, they were uneasy, to say the least. There was not enough action, it moved too slow, the voices had been done by real kids, not adult actors, there was no laugh track, etc. Most upsetting was the fact that Linus read from the Gospel of Luke in one scene. (“You can’t read from the Bible on network television!”) Nevertheless, CBS had made a commitment to their sponsor, so they aired the special as scheduled on December 9, 1965. And, as it turned out, A Charlie Brown Christmas drew in 15.4 million viewers, placing it second in the ratings that week after Bonanza. A few months later, Charles Schulz and Lee Mendelson found themselves onstage accepting an Emmy Award for Outstanding Children’s Program.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Warner Bros. Television

12. Boris Karloff, best known as a horror film actor thanks to his starring roles in movies such as Frankenstein, won a Grammy Award in 1967 (in the spoken word category) for his work as the narrator/Grinch when How the Grinch Stole Christmas was released as an LP.

13. “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” was sung by Thurl Ravenscroft, whose basso profundo voice is familiar to most of the world as that of Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger (“They’re grrrrrreat!!”)

14. The Grinch in Dr. Seuss’ original 1957 book was black and white with touches of pink, like every other illustration. It was director Chuck Jones (who’d produced and directed countless Warner Brothers cartoons starring Bugs Bunny and his pals) who decided that the Grinch should be green.

15. Just prior to the Grinch’s first airing, Variety snarked at the $315,000 budget (extravagant by 1966 standards) for a children’s cartoon. "The Grinch - It Not Only Stole Christmas But Picked CBS' Pocket” was the headline of doom.

Bowie and Bing

16. It’s not an official stand-alone Christmas special, but this 1977 clip manages to get aired every holiday season, mainly due to the odd juxtaposition of the participants: old-school crooner Bing Crosby (age 73 at the time) and contemporary artist (considered somewhat outrageous by those who still remembered Ziggy Stardust) David Bowie. Crosby was in the midst of a UK tour at the time, and the theme of the show was “Christmas in England.”

17. Bowie’s management had agreed to have him appear on the special because A) it was filmed at Elstree Studios, not far from Bowie’s home, and B) his video for “Heroes” would be a part of the show (complete with an introduction by Der Bingle himself).

18. At the last minute, however, Bowie read the script and objected to singing “Little Drummer Boy,” stating “I hate this song. Is there something else I could sing?” Ian Fraser, Larry Grossman and Buz Kohan (the show’s producers and songwriters in their own right) adjourned to the studio’s basement and in less than 90 minutes came up with the “Peace on Earth” bit that Bowie agreed to interweave with Crosby’s rendition of “Little Drummer Boy.”