How many of these shows do you remember, or maybe still watch every year?
1. The Year without a Santa Claus
This 1974 Rankin-Bass favorite was based on a short story by the same name written by Phyllis McGinley that was published in Good Housekeeping magazine in 1956. The piece received such a positive reaction that it was released in book form the following year. In 1968, Capitol Records hired Boris Karloff (who’d had success with his voice work in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas two years earlier) to narrate the story on an album. The LP featured McGinley’s story on the A-side, and a collection of Christmas songs from Capitol’s library on the B-side.
Academy, Emmy, and Tony Award winner Shirley Booth provided the voice of Mrs. Claus in the special and served as the show’s narrator. Press releases at the time stated that Booth had agreed to the project because of her longtime admiration for McGinley’s work, but in truth Booth was smarting from the recent and abrupt cancellation of her new ABC sitcom, A Touch of Grace. Her return to network TV had been ballyhooed in the press, and its getting axed after just 13 episodes was a major blow. Booth was amused by the fact that even though she sings a duet with Mickey Rooney (Santa Claus) in the special, she had never met the actor in person. She’d recorded her portion of the song in New York, he did his in Chicago, and the producers melded the two parts together.
The stand-out “stars” of The Year Without a Santa Claus were, without question, the Heat Miser and Snow Miser, voiced by George S. Irving and Dick Shawn respectively. Despite a long career as a film actor and stand-up comedian, Shawn might well have been remembered most for his voice work as the frosty Snow Miser had it not been for his most unusual death. Shawn was performing a one-man show at U.C. San Diego in April 1987 and had just launched into a routine about politicians and their clichés and campaign promises. Shortly after uttering the line “If elected, I will not lie down on the job” he fell face down on the stage. It was almost a full five minutes before members of the stage crew realized that this was not part of his act; Shawn had suffered a fatal heart attack onstage.
2. Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey
If you cried when Bambi was orphaned or when Old Yeller contracted rabies, then avoid Nestor at all costs. There is a scene where Nestor’s mama protects him during a blizzard that puts a complete damper on any feel-goodness that shows up later when the floppy-eared little guy helps a couple find their way to Bethlehem.
Anyway, Nestor started out as a holiday record by Gene Autry, who was hoping to duplicate the success he’d had with “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” The record flopped, but Rankin-Bass turned it into one of their Animagic specials. Nestor is a bit of a departure for R-B not only because it features the Nativity scene, but also because the villain isn’t an obvious make-believe monster (like the Abominable Snowman) but scary Roman soldiers.
3. Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas
This charming special from Jim Henson and his Muppet crew first aired on HBO in 1977, shortly before the Muppets hit the real-big time in their first feature film. The story is somewhat based on O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi, with the very poor Otter family (minus Pa, who has gone on to that big river in the sky) wanting to enter a local Christmas talent show. But Ma has to hock Pa’s tool chest in order to buy a dress for the competition, and Emmet has to cut a hole in Ma’s washtub to make an upright bass … Luckily, the up-tempo songs and delightful production design keep the story from drowning in pathos.
Emmet was one of the most ambitious productions Jim Henson’s company had undertaken to date. This was long before CGI was at every animator’s fingertips, so the crew actually constructed a 55-foot-long river that was 10 feet wide across the stage they’d built in a Toronto studio. Emmet’s rowboat was radio-controlled, and some of the Muppets were operated via a brand new contraption Henson’s engineers had devised called a “Waldo.” The Waldo is an electronic telemetric device that the Muppeteer wears like a mitten. Shaped like the character’s head, it allows the wearer to control the puppet’s mouth remotely via radio signals.
4. The Little Drummer Boy
Based on the Katherine Kennicott Davis song by the same name, Rankin-Bass obviously had to flesh out the story to fill up 30 minutes of airtime. So they gave Aaron (the Drummer Boy) a back story: orphaned when his parents were killed by thieves, he was forced to join a circus because his drumming made his animal friends dance. He eventually escapes with his friends—a camel, a sheep and a donkey—and joins up with the Three Wise Men’s caravan to Bethlehem. The sheep is injured along the way, and Aaron asks the newborn baby Jesus to heal him. When the Infant Savior grants his request, appreciative Aaron gives the only gift he has to offer, that of music.
Actress Greer Garson, who’d won an Academy Award for Mrs. Miniver in 1942, narrated this special. The Little Drummer Boy was sponsored by the American Gas Association when it debuted in 1968, so all the bumpers featured “Holiday Wishes from Your Local Gas Company!”