Thursday, December 24, 2009

Pop culture Christmas: into the Rankin/Bass ‘Animagic’ vortex

Singing elves. Dancing snowmen. The awkward beauties of stop-motion animation. Yuletides threatened by mad professors, insane dictators, giant buzzards, and Arab stereotypes. Welcome to the world of Rankin/Bass, a company that took the pop-culture Christmas ball and ran with it, creating a demented body of video work that will live forever . . . for better or worse.

We can sometimes measure our faithfulness to the sentiments of the season through our dedication to the ritual of watching holiday TV specials.

The best are just can’t-miss, hands-down good: “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” Then there are eerie moments, like that kooky nutty 1977 Bing Crosby/David Bowie Christmas duet:

And the depthless horror that is “The Star Wars Holiday Special”:

But no one could crank out the Xmas kitsch quite like the minions of Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass. For more than two decades, their studio produced over a dozen animated Christmas specials, most of them filmed with puppets in painstaking stop-motion technique. Only Sid and Marty Krofft of “H.R. Pufnstuf” fame can claim a similar dominance over the injection of absolute weirdness into children’s minds.

The real heroes were the Japanese animators, under Tadahito Mochinaga and later at Topcraft, who developed into a powerful generation of anime artists, directors and producers.

Here are some highlights:

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

The first and the best. I distinctly remember the first broadcast, and it blew me away. The attention to detail, the anything-goes leaps of logic, the weird mix of cultural references: it sets the pattern, both in form and tone, for all Rankin/Bass holiday specials to come.

Celebrity narrator: Sam the Snowman (Burl Ives). So memorable, he made it into “Elf”!

Song You Can’t Get out of Your Head: “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas”

Villain: The Abominable Snowman, and the worst blizzard in a century.

High points: a) Hermey the elf confesses his obsessive desire to become a dentist. B) Rudolph calling out, “Ready, Santa!” Gulp. Sob.

Huh?: Still wondering about strong yet sensitive Yukon Cornelius, and King Moonracer, the flying lion that rules over the Island of Misfit Toys. I’m still trying to work that last one out.

Lesson: Diversity. We must love and accept all our differently-abled reindeer.

Quote: “Nobody wants a Charlie-in-the-Box!”

After the relatively turgid and uncomfortably Christ-centered “The Little Drummer Boy” (1968), we move on to

Frosty the Snowman (1969)

Celebrity narrator: Jimmy Durante

Song You Can’t Get out of Your Head: The title song, silly!

Villain: Professor Hinkle, memorably portrayed by the inimitable and now forgotten Billy De Wolfe, a professional sissy of the type played by Charles Nelson Reilly and Franklin Pangborn.

High points: Frosty saves his friend Karen at the cost of his own conversion from a solid to a liquid state.

Huh?: Santa threatening to cut Professor Hinkle off from the present list if he doesn’t give Frosty his life-producing magic hat. Then makes him write 100 zillion apologies. This does not follow the precepts of “Love and Logic.”

Lesson: Don’t be a hater.

Quote: “Happy birthday!”

Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970)

Celebrity narrator: Fred Astaire

Song You Can’t Get out of Your Head: “Put One Foot in Front of the Other” (later recycled into the “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” special a year later)

Villain: Burgomeister Meisterburger! Ooo, he hatez dose toyzzz!

High points: Kris Kringle is a defiant elf-raised orphan who brings toys to children despite being ground down by The Man. He works under cover of darkness, an outlaw advocate of materialism, and winds up a political prisoner, Yuletide’s own Vaclav Havel. Plus, Jessica Claus is hot.

Huh?: The insane lengths the story goes to in order to explain every aspect of the Santa mythos are beyond compare. Red suit, beard, flying reindeer, magic feed corn – the scrotal fortitude of the writers is impressive.

Lesson: Nobody can mess with the inalienable right of children to have toys, especially with omnipotent omniscient Santa on their side. Dammit.

Quote: “Behave yourselves, because Santa can still look into his magic snowball and see just what you're up to.”

The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)

Celebrity narrator: Shirley Booth

Songs You Can’t Get out of Your Head: “The Snow Miser Song” and “The Heat Miser Song”

Villain: Isn’t it Santa this time? He catches a cold, decides to take a break, and basically bails.

High points: Snow Miser and Heat Miser, of course

Huh?: It’s kind of like “Measure for Measure” – a leader leaves, creating a power vacuum that’s filled with bad bargains. Elves are making deals with Southern mayors, element-controlling spirits, and the like.

Lesson: Santa is too big to fail.

Quote: “Nobody cares a hoot and a holler for you or Christmas.”

And . . .it just starts to go steeply downhill from there. The Little Drummer Boy, Book II (1976) still has a rap that it contains anti-Arab stereotyping. Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey (1977), Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July (1979), Pinocchio’s Christmas (1980), The Leprechaun’s Christmas Gold (1981). All dredging up scraps of the old Animagic.

A few years later, it ground to a halt. Only the renaissance sparked by Will Vinton (the California Raisins), Henry Selick (“The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “James and the Giant Peach,” “Coraline”), and Nick Park (Wallace and Grommit) has restored the technique to mainstream use. No Rudolph, no “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”

Monday, December 21, 2009

Good Christmas music: Ars Nova's 'Yuletide'

This shameless commercial plug comes as the result of a good deed.

I have listened to and written about the Boulder, Colorado choral ensemble the Ars Nova Singers for longer than a decade. They have 10 recordings to their credit, and the latest is the recently released "Yuletide."

I am the most intolerant of Christmas music auditors, as my earlier "Pop culture Christmas: the perils of carols" story shows. When Ars Nova asked me to come to their one of their concerts this holiday time, I let them know I didn't have the ability to publicize their efforts widely.

In keeping with their kindness, which is as strong as their musicianship, they asked me over anyway, and sent me a copy of their new CD. Isn't that nice?

And it's quite good. Thomas Edward Morgan's choir has created a body of strong, diverse vocal work that ranges from early-music to contemporary pieces, many arranged by Morgan himself. "Yuletide" is no exception.

The 44 members of Ars Nova distinguish themselves with a cappella work that handles the complexities of Taverner and the smooth sweetness of Vince Guaraldi's "Christmas Time is Here" with equally luminous blend and tone. The 16 tracks included here complement their previous seasonal fare in 1993's "A Floweret Bright" and 2000's "Midwinter."

It's a privilege to hear this work. And it's not too late to get a copy. Go to

Friday, December 18, 2009

Pop culture Christmas: It's in the cards

You either celebrate Christmas or you endure it. There’s no in-between. It would take the composure of Shunryu Suzuki to pass indifferent to it.

It forces you to react. You must send greeting cards. Mustn’t you?

Let’s say you still do. You are compelled to send greeting cards, and post same as they arrive in that weird display rack in your kitchen.

In the Midwest growing up, forgetting someone on your Christmas card list, or not honoring some new acquaintance with a Yuletide greeting, was tantamount to a challenge to a duel. Entire branches and sub-tribes of dour Scandinavian Americans no longer communicate due to greeting-card grudges.

It is a competitive sport, an aesthetic challenge, and a spiritual conundrum. How many do you get? Do you have to go back and buy more? And what kind do you buy? Here’s look at some genres:

1. Religious

No matter how many time we mutter “Happy holidays,” it’s Christmas. Jesus is indeed the reason for the season, coupled with capitalism’s exploitation of peace and love for commercial purposes. America’s politically correct inhabit a zone of denial. For anyone in a minority, America is an intermittently tolerant Christian monoculture.

So, hey, why not get into it? Go for broke. If Mary’s baby was born to die, send a stern and pious Christmas card, or at least something with a mixed message, like this:

A crucifix covered in ornaments? Very Scorsese.

2. Chicken-hearted

This is the category into which you can throw everyone you’re not sure about – co-workers, acquaintances, and relatives you hate. Pick the most generic greeting you can find:

“Season’s greetings”! The ultimate copout.

3. Humor – Gentle

By far the most popular category. We self-consciously admit our ambivalence about the holiday by sending a vaguely funny and inoffensive card.

4. Snarky

OK, you just hate Christmas. You are a Christmatheist. We did our best over the years to defy the dominant paradigm. One year, we hand-made cards that, when opened, stated in calligraphy “Please join us in the violent overthrow of the United States government.” Another year a friend, with a few deft strokes of the pen, artfully turned a holiday cottage into the site of the Manson killings.

These are just suggestions.

5. Dirty

Do you know anyone who gets these? Have you ever seen them displayed anywhere beside a hobo’s shack or a submarine wardroom?

6. Just Ridiculous

This is absolutely the most disturbing e-card I could find:

It’s not quite as hauntingly strange as another holiday hobby we used to indulge. We of course saved all our Christmas cards. I dug out family photo cards and mailed them off randomly to friends who would have no idea who they were. These unknown, grotesque clutches of people converted into shiny, convivial laminates are still being passed from hand to hand, God knows where now, landing on mantels where they are puzzled at for a few weeks.

“Who are these people? How do we know them?”

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Pop culture Christmas ADDENDUM: Two classics

It's in the air. The minute I shipped this, two other songs that cannot be ignored came to mind.

The first was just named the worst Christmas song of all time!

And the first part of this sequence is the unbearably lovable singing of Melvin Dummer (Paul Le Mat) and Howard Hughes (Jason Robards, Jr.) in Jonathan Demme's "Melvin and Howard."

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Pop culture Christmas: The perils of carols

Gosh, there’s nothing like hearing Christmas music in every store and on every street corner. It really puts me in the mood – to buy a high-powered rifle and start shooting into crowds from above.

The onslaught now starts as soon as the last trick-or-treater rings the bell on Halloween. We start cranking “Jingle Bells,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and the rest.

Over and over. Incessantly. Until I begin to poke absentmindedly at my eardrums with an awl.

Christmas music is too much of a good thing. Our frighteningly cheesy high school show choir used to hit the road during the holiday season, chirping holiday tunes at old folks’ homes, in shopping malls and even door to door.

But caroling’s kind of like sports, and sex. It’s fun to participate. Not watch. Not so much.

The categories of holiday music, in increasing order of annoyance, are as follows:

1. Sacred music

It’s almost always not in English, so you can pretend they’re singing whatever you like. Many times, under Christmas duress, my fellow baritones and I whispered filthy variants of our own back and forth while performing the good old Weihnachtsoratorium.

When not captivated by something on the order of Luigi Melanoma and the St. Cajetan Rejects doing “I Spumoni Contenti,” I can listen to stuff like Handel’s “Messiah” on perpetual repeat, no problem. My favorite chorus? “O We Like Sheep,” also the state anthem of Wyoming.

As a bonus, it makes you sleepy. Who doesn’t love falling asleep under the tree face down as the spilled eggnog begins to crust and stink in the shag carpet while the Robert Shaw Chorale belts out “Adeste Fideles”?

2. Hymns, carols and other semi-sacred fare

It doesn’t get much whiter than this. It’s not syncopated, it doesn’t swing, it’s melodic, harmonic, and nearly catatonic.

Now it starts to get dicey. In this case, we all know the words, and if we cannot get behind the whole Jesus-baby concept, it can be uncomfortable singing along.

Even though Xmas is all about love and hope and kindness, some of the songs still manage to twist the guilt-knife. “God rest ye merry gentlemen/Let nothing you dismay/Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day/To save us all from Satan’s power/When we had gone astray.” Ouch. In “O Holy Night,” we discover that “Long lay the world/In sin and error pining.” Well, thanks.

And there are some I’m still puzzling on. Isn’t the “The Holly and the Ivy” quite a metaphoric stretch? “I Saw Three Ships”? “Good King Wenceslas”? Not a clue.

You can still count me in for a few verses of “We three kings of Orient are/Trying to light a rubber cigar…” But don’t get me started on “The Little Drummer Boy” or “Do You Hear What I Hear?” These are my bĂȘte noires. Do not sing them, or I will hurt you.

3. Secular holiday songs

OK, here we enter a strictly undoctrinaire zone. This is all about Santa, and Rudolph, and Frosty, and that jazz. Getting’ stuff, and busy streets, and snow-covered lanes, and ornaments! Yay!

It seems that every songwriter saved his or her catchiest tunes to wed to holiday songs, and these ingrained melodies haunt us, throbbing in our skulls even during our August noons. At Yuletide, the saturation is total. The sugary avalanche floods our ears. It’s like being choked to death with licorice whips.

Some songs are great, and stand up on their own merits. Mel Torme and Bob Wells’ “The Christmas Song”

would sound great covered by Monk. “White Christmas” is a killer. But the rest – c’mon, it’s a racket.

None of America’s pop Christmas songs predate 1934. The image of Santa was standardized by illustrator Haddon Sundblom for the Coca-Cola Company in 1931. Hmmm.

Sense a pattern there? The 20th century’s commercialization of Christmas is a magic wave of capitalist ethos that still swells and sweeps the world. It needs a syrupy soundtrack.

4. Novelty songs

What were originally supposed to be relief from the season’s solemnities became nasty nuggets of noise themselves. “Jingle Bell” barking dogs, “Grandma Got Run over by a Reindeer,” “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas,” any parody . . . stop, please. Just STOP.

5. Romantic holiday songs

Any song where you’re using Christmas as an excuse to get laid is just not right. “Let It Snow,” “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” “Merry Christmas Darling” – all pathetic attempts to get into someone’s pants. Take it from me, it usually doesn’t work. Also, it gives me horrible flashbacks about Andy Williams Christmas specials that are the mental equivalent of shingles.

6. Mindless mashups

Take “The Carol of the Bells.” Add “Sleigh Ride.” Add “March of the Wooden Soldiers.” Add every other song mentioned so far. Put a beat on it. Homogenize. Spray it liberally into every corner of reality.

Then book me a room at the clinic. Wake me when it’s Mardi Gras. Now THERE’S some good holiday music.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Pop culture Christmas: ‘A Christmas Carol’ at CU

Bob Buckley (right) in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's production of "A Christmas Carol." [Photo by Glenn Asakawa for CU Communications]

Everyone has made a Christmas album. Bob Dylan just did; would you like to listen to it? So has Richard Cheese. If I could find a backer, I would too. Let’s face it -- Christmas sells.

Musicians, singers, dancers, actors, and all the support staff that surround them count on this time of year for a big infusion of cash (some of it under the table, as I recall). Fortunately, each year we drag out and redress the old decorations, lights and common cultural property, of which there is precious little these days. We need our yearly dose of redemption, forgiveness and compassion. And we need people to make the magic for us.

The holidays justify that once-a-year visit to the theater, for the Nutcracker or the Messiah, for the adaptations of movies such as “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Miracle on 34th Street,” and “A Christmas Story,” and long enough now that snarky shows like “The SantaLand Diaries,” “Santa’s Big Red Sack,” and “Balls! A Holiday Spectacular,” all going down in the Denver metro area, here in the heartland. Or a place on its western rim.

“A Christmas Carol” is the gold standard. The 1843 Charles Dickens masterpiece is a story you couldn’t kill with a stick. It’s got everything! A comedy miser! Three ghosts (four, if you count Marley’s enchained wraith)! It converts easily into a musical! A bumbling clerk! A relentlessly pathetic disabled child!

Big bowls of steaming stuff. Victorian line dancing. Caroling. Time travel. Funny hats. “May you be happy in the life you have chosen!” After so many years of watching so many different productions, it all beings to blur together.

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival trotted out yet another adaptation last week. In contrast to the high-MGM-period budget of the Denver Center’s version, this staging is simple and straightforward. Adapter and director Philip C. Sneed, CSF’s Producing Artistic Director, knows we know the story, and that you just need to get out of its way.

Using lighting cues, rolling props and actors in multiple roles, Sneed imaginatively guides us through Scrooge’s pilgrimage to self-awareness. You get the redemption. You get the forgiveness. You get the compassion.

And you get a study guide! Actually, it’s quite good – thank Amanda Holden, Melinda Scott and CU's Dr. Shirley Carnahan for that. We have all had to page through bad study guides. And we have all survived awful holiday fare. This production is by far at the good end of my lifetime “Christmas Carol” spectrum.

Bob Buckley is a nice Scrooge, and the ensemble includes some other faces from the CSF’s summer company as well. The minimalist approach works.

And they don’t make you sing or make wassail with them at the end or anything. That is good.

“A Christmas Carol” is presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in the University Theater on the CU-Boulder campus through Dec. 27. For tickets and information, please call 303-492-0554 or visit online at

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