By the end of the 1960s, the production team of Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass had a well-established niche in the annual holiday TV schedule. Their “Animagic” stop-motion animation specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and The Little Drummer Boy were eagerly anticipated each December and were well on their way to “classic” status. In 1969, the Rankin/Bass team introduced yet another holiday-themed special based on a song, Frosty the Snowman. The special premiered on Sunday, December 7, following the network’s annual revival of 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas. Here are a few things you might not have known about the legendary animated special.
1. IT WAS A HIT SONG LONG BEFORE IT WAS A TV SPECIAL.
The song “Frosty the Snowman” was written by Jack Rollins and Steve Nelson in 1950 (with a melody that is strikingly similar to 1932’s “Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee”) 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 Little Golden Books and Dell Comics.
2. RANKIN/BASS WASN’T THE FIRST TEAM TO ANIMATE FROSTY.
In 1954, United Productions of America (UPA) brought Frosty to life in a short cartoon that is little more than an animated music video for a jazzy version of the song. It introduced the characters mentioned in the lyrics visually, from Frosty himself to the traffic cop. The three-minute, black-and-white piece quickly became a holiday tradition in various markets, particularly in Chicago, where it’s been broadcast annually on WGN since 1955.
3. FROSTY WAS VOICED BY A NOT-SO-FAMILY-FRIENDLY STAND-UP COMEDIAN.
Deadpan comic Jackie Vernon was known for his “slideshow” routines, where he’d narrate slides (unseen by the audience) and “change” them with a handheld clicker. Quite often his routines ended with a graphic description of some sexual perversion that he’d innocently stumbled onto via the recommendation of some stranger, about whom he’d always comment “… and I thought, ‘Gee, what a neat guy!’”
4. THE NARRATOR WAS UNIVERSALLY REGARDED AS A NICE GUY.
Jimmy Durante was a jazz pianist, singer, and comedian whose career spanned a little over 50 years. In the 1950s, he was a regular not only at Las Vegas’ Desert Inn, but also at the Guardian Angel Cathedral, where he stood outside and greeted fellow parishioners with the priest after Sunday mass each week. 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.”
5. LEGENDARY VOICE ACTORS JUNE FORAY AND PAUL FREES WERE REPLACED AFTER THE ORIGINAL AIRING.
The original film featured June Foray performing the voices of both the schoolteacher and young Karen, who accompanied Frosty to the North Pole. Paul Frees was the Traffic Cop and Santa Claus, and the two combined to voice the remaining schoolchildren. For reasons unknown (even to Foray herself), nearly all the children’s voices—including Karen’s—were redubbed by unidentified child actors for the 1970 airing. All subsequent TV appearances and video releases contain this new soundtrack. The original is only available on the 1970 soundtrack LP and a 2002 CD release by Rhino.
6. FROSTY WAS PARTIALLY MADE IN JAPAN.
Frosty the Snowman 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. The animation was done by Mushi Studio, the Japanese company founded by Osamu Tezuka to produce Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion cartoons.
7. FROSTY’S HOMETOWN IS ARMONK, NEW YORK.
Lyricist Steve Nelson lived in nearby White Plains and loved to visit the historic hamlet of Armonk as a young man. The Village Square mentioned in the lyrics of the song is now the Armonk Historic District in the town of North Castle. Local historians also claim that the traffic cop who hollers “Stop!” is based on former chief of police John Hergenhan. Armonk hosts an annual Frosty Day parade and celebration that is officially listed as one of the “10 Best Things To Do in Westchester County.”
8. FROSTY HAS MAGIC FINGERS AS WELL AS A MAGIC HAT!
Watch carefully when Frosty attempts to count to 10: He has five fingers on one hand for a brief moment, then when he clasps his hand and flexes his digits, he’s down to four fingers. Maybe that falls under the category of “animation blooper” rather than “magic.”