TORONTO - For many families, watching classic TV specials like "How The Grinch Stole Christmas," "Rudolph-the Red-nosed Reindeer" and "A Charlie Brown Christmas" have become as much a part of the annual holiday tradition as putting up the tree.
Saturday night, NBC re-broadcasts a program that actually pre-dates that trio of '60s specials: "Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol."
The hour-long holiday offering premiered on Dec. 18, 1962 and featured the voice of Jim Backus — a veteran character actor best known as wealthy castaway Thurston Howell III on "Gilligan's Island" — as nearsighted cartoon curmudgeon Mister Magoo.
The character first appeared in a 1949 theatrical cartoon produced by United Productions of America, an independent film house that ushered in a new, starker graphic style in the 1950s. UPA went on to produce cartoons featuring Gerald McBoing-Boing. The two UPA stars were teamed in "Magoo's Christmas" as Scrooge and young Tiny Tim.
Like the Charlie Brown and Grinch specials, Magoo took advantage of a conflux of talent available for such an undertaking. Theatrical shorts had all but disappeared from movie theatres, putting talented animators and background artists out of film work and into the still relatively new world of television. Abe Levitow, who worked with Chuck Jones at Warner Bros. in the '50s on Bugs Bunny and Roadrunner cartoons, directed the Magoo Christmas special.
Besides Backus, the voice talent on "Magoo's Christmas" included TV veteran Morey Amsterdam (Buddy on "The Dick Van Dyke Show") and Jack Cassidy, a busy actor who was the father of "Partridge Family" pop star David Cassidy. Veteran cartoon voice-over star Paul Frees, who did everything from Boris Badenov to the Little Green Sprout in the Green Giant commercials, can also be heard as Fezziwig and others.
Critics praised the special when it was first released, especially the songs by the Broadway team of Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, whose next hit was "Funny Girl."
"Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol" established the formula that made the other animated '60s specials such perennial hits. Besides being a collaboration of great musical and artistic talent at mid-century, it was based on a classic work, in this case, being "freely" (and actually quite faithfully) adapted from Charles Dickens' novel. "Charlie Brown," of course, took its lead from Charles Schultz' "Peanuts" newspaper strip. "The Grinch" was the brainchild of children's author Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss).
"Rudolph" had more commercial roots. It was written as a poem in the "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" tradition by Robert L. May for the U.S. department store Montgomery Ward. May's brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, adapted the poem into a song. Singing cowboy Gene Autry recorded it and it went on to sell over 25 million copies.
The network broadcast revival of "Magoo" after 50 years begs the question as to why something newer hasn't replaced all these chestnuts. Why is Christmas on TV still analog in a digital world?
Perhaps all these specials — like repeated airings of even older movies such as "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Miracle on 34th Street" —are cherished as reminders of a simpler, more innocent time. Another factor may be that today's animated icons — "The Simpsons," "Family Guy," "South Park" — are more apt to deconstruct Christmas than celebrate it. Perhaps irony doesn't go down as well as eggnog at this time of year.
"Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol" may have been the first animated special created for television but other TV offerings came first. "I Love Lucy" and "The Honeymooners" both did black-and-white Christmas-themed episodes.
One of the very first series to air a Christmas episode may never be seen on TV again. "Amos 'n' Andy" was a huge hit on radio in the '30s and '40s but was eventually criticized for being racist. A folksy tale about African Americans, it was written and performed on radio by white men — Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll.
By the time it came to television in the early '50s, black performers Alvin Childress, Spencer Williams and Tim Moore portrayed central characters Kingfish, Amos and Andrew H. Brown.
The Christmas episode — in which Amos sits by his daughter's bedside and explains the Lord's Prayer — was first performed on radio in the early '40s. When it aired on television in 1952, Andy played a department store Santa. Thus when Santa was first seen on an American TV series, he was an African American.
"Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol" airs Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on NBC and Global.
Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.
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