Golden Age Christmas TV Cartoons

In 1962, the first Christmas cartoon created for television debuted. And even decades later, nothing can compete with the classic cartoons from that era.

Fun links

Music from this episode

  • Wingspan — Blue Dot Sessions, via Free Music Archive
  • Gentle Marimbas — Podington Bear, via Free Music Archive
  • Flattered — Blue Dot Sessions, via Free Music Archive
  • Bethlehem — Kevin MacLeod, via Incompetech

Episode transcript

Brian Earl 0:05
When I was growing up that sound could mean only one thing. regularly scheduled programming on TV tonight was out the window tonight would bring a special presentation of a christmas cartoon. primetime Christmas cartoons are one of our newer traditions, and they really are a bonafide tradition. They often involve the entire family arranging to be in the same place at the same time. They bring a sense of nostalgia and connection to the past. And like any tradition, there’s an element of ritual. When I was growing up, whenever there was an animated Christmas special on TV, my mom would make this homemade party mix out of popcorn, peanuts, pretzels, and like cereal. Hey, don’t knock it till you try it. And my siblings and I in our matching Winnie the Pooh, pajamas, cups of root beer in hand, would settle in and Munch away as we tuned into whatever it was, we were going to watch that night. When you think of the classic animated Christmas specials, I’ll bet a small handful come to mind immediately. ones like Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. They’ve aired in primetime every year for about 50 years now. And what do they all have in common? They were all produced in the 1960s 1962 to 1969 to be exact, a sort of golden age of Christmas animation. You’d think with animation being what it is today, we’d be knocking out modern classics left and right. But so far, nothing is quite caught on like that small number of gems from the 1960s. Why? Well, it’s a combination of an animation industry that was undergoing some important changes around that time. Clever content and marketing strategy, and the power of ritual and tradition. I’m Brian Earl, this is Christmas past. It all starts in 1962. Even though television wasn’t mature medium by then, and even though Christmassy, animated movie shorts had been recycled as TV content. No one had yet come around to producing an animated Christmas program specifically for television.

Joanna Wilson 2:19
If there is a golden era of Christmas animated specials, it would have to start with Mr. Meadows Christmas carol in 1962 because it was the first Christmas animated special made specifically for television.

Brian Earl 2:32
That’s Joanna Wilson, and She’s the author of several books about Christmas TV programming, including tis the season TV.

Joanna Wilson 2:39
There was animation at Christmas on television performance from ago but it was made by Walt Disney for Walt Disney presents his weekly television show and it was actually mostly recycled film shorts that he had already released into theaters.

Brian Earl 2:54
Mr. Magoo is Christmas Carol is a musical adaptation of the classic Charles Dickens story. But why Mr. Magoo,

Joanna Wilson 3:01
they were looking to create complex stories that were appealing to everybody who might be sitting in front of the television set that included children and parents and grandchildren.

Brian Earl 3:10
You see this today with animated movies, the studio’s realized that parents will be watching with their children, so they’ll throw in jokes and references the adults will get and cast celebrities adults will appreciate to voice the characters. Mr. Magoo was already a popular children’s cartoon that began airing two years earlier. A Christmas Carol was a well known story. And Jim Backus, who voiced Mr. Magoo was already very well known to adults from his extensive work on radio, movies and television. Throw in some very high quality music written by a team of Broadway composers, and you’ve got the perfect recipe to attract a wide viewership. audiences and critics alike consider this a holiday classic. But why did it take until the early 1960s for any of this to happen?

Joanna Wilson 3:55
There were several conditions that actually made it conducive to right right at that time. One was the animation industry was changing the 1930s 40s and 50s animation was dominated by big Hollywood studio animation companies and a lot of animators grew up working in these big studios and began to break off and make their own independent animation studios and television was actually an expanding medium animation was starting to pop up in the 50s in commercials and Hanna Barbera began making original cartoons just for television in the late 50s and early 60s. So new content was being made just for television, not just recycled old film shorts were being shown. And because new animation was coming in intelligence sponsors were willing and that was an important thing that brought Christmas animation in.

Brian Earl 4:41
And so for the remainder of that decade, the major networks introduced new Christmas specials in primetime every year or two. Following the proven formula of well known characters, celebrity voice talent and original music 1964 brought the debut of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer with Burl Ives as the narrator Charlie Brown Christmas arrived the following year with a pretty bold move a sophisticated jazz soundtrack by Vince guaraldi. How the Grinch Stole Christmas arrived the year after that with Boris Karloff is the narrator and that unforgettable song you’re a mean one Mr. Grinch, which was sung by none other than thurl Ravenscroft, who you may know better as the voice of Tony the Tiger. And we close out the decade with 1969 Frosty the Snowman narrated by Jimmy Durante. Of course, this wasn’t the end of Christmas animation for TV, not by a longshot

Joanna Wilson 5:34
through the 70s and into the 80s. There’s an explosion in Christmas animation. This also has a lot to do with the success of these first five that we mentioned. Now suddenly, other animators and animation companies are seeing Wow, there’s a market here we can actually create Christmas animation to and everybody did every studio made at least one Christmas special often more than that.

Brian Earl 5:56
The 1970s brought us the stop motion animation specials. Santa Claus is coming to town, and the year without Santa Claus, both of which were produced by Rankin bass, the same studio that made Rudolph and frosty, they’d end up making a total of 19 Christmas programs. The 1980s brought us a veritable Toys R Us catalog of programming with special centered around Pac Man, the Cabbage Patch Kids, the masters of the universe, the carebears, and a whole lot more. But what all of those specials have in common is that they’re no longer aired by major networks in primetime. And those five specials from the Golden Age still are. It’s true that Mr. Magoo took a hiatus for a little while, but it’s back now. Rudolph has aired in primetime annually since 1964, making it the longest running Christmas TV special of all time. But why all of these programs are readily available on DVD. audiences can watch them whenever they want. And yet, we still make time to watch them as scheduled programming. And surprisingly, the number of people doing that is on the rise. It all comes back to that sense of nostalgia and ritual.

Joanna Wilson 7:05
I hear people repeat to me all the time, that they make a special effort to watch it just how they watched it when they were children, which is when it airs on TV, you know, as a part of the broadcast with the commercials. That’s still something that people feel nostalgic about when it comes to Christmas entertainment, they want to watch Rudolph with the commercials. when it airs on TV, they want to watch Charlie Brown when it airs on TV.

Brian Earl 7:30
In other words, maybe it’s not just the show itself, but also everything that goes with it. The sense of anticipation of a shared experience with people we love, the rare privilege of staying up past your bedtime and making special snacks to eat while watching it. We want to return to that again and again. And so we do. On the other hand, sometimes you also want something a little different. A couple of days ago, I along with several of my fellow Christmas podcasters released a special bonus episode, where we came together to tell you the classic Christmas story, the host of the seven Santas. If you haven’t heard it yet, check it out. It was a lot of fun. And who knows, maybe 2017 will be the year that that becomes a new holiday tradition on its own. You’ll get to hear from seven different podcasts including mine, which as you know, likes to stay with the warm and fuzzy traditional Christmas stuff. But you’ll also hear from Craig Kringle who’s all about the weirder side of Christmas.

Craig Kringle 8:32
You love Christmas? Sure, but sometimes the same old traditions are too traditional. Sometimes you want to see Santa stuff a kid in his sack. Sometimes you want Christmas dinner to come alive and threaten you with knives and forks. Sometimes you just need Christmas to get a bit weird. Weird Christmas has you covered check out podcast filled with annoying Christmas music proof that st Nick came from magic mushrooms and talk about Christmas specials so disturbing you won’t sleep for days. now available on iTunes and SoundCloud. Weird Oh, golly, Mary that’s different.

Brian Earl 9:05
I have a feeling Craig Kringle isn’t his real name, but I really want to be wrong about that. Well anyway, whether you like it warm and fuzzy or weird and wacky. One of the great things about Christmas is that we get to relive old memories every year. But also each new year is a chance to create new memories and sometimes cherished Christmas memories come when they’re least expected. Like what happened one year to Eric in Texas.

Eric in Texas 9:31
This is from Christmas 2003 on Ballade airbase in Iraq. I was a young soldier. This was my first deployment and I was of course feeling lonely and sad. But as Christmas approached, some special things happen courtesy of the USO. First we went to the dining facility one night and we walk in and hear this beautiful Christmas music and it was different because it was live so we look to see who it is and we’re expecting you know the Army Band or not Something like that. And it was actually Alabama serenading us with Christmas music and it was really cool. And we thought, oh, wow, that’s that’s really great couldn’t possibly get much better than that. But I was wrong. Because on the next night, the WWE was doing one of their uso tours, and they showed up to the same dining facility. And I was looking around seeing some of my favorite superstars sitting at the tables among us and one of my favorite wrestlers of all time, Mr. Eddie Guerrero was sitting right across from me, Eddie was something special, and he just wanted to share memories about his childhood and Christmas and about what I did for Christmas. So that was a that was a great Christmas memory of mine. Hope you guys enjoyed it.

Brian Earl 10:38
Eric is the host of fat packs podcast, a podcast about sports collectibles. Check it out wherever you get your podcasts. And now I want to hear about your favorite Christmas specials or songs or memories. whatever they are, I want to share them right here and it’s super easy. All you have to do is record a voice memo on your phone and send it to Christmas pass Christmas passed is produced in sunny San Mateo, California by yours truly, Brian Earl. Thanks very much to Joanna Wilson and Eric Norton. Be sure to follow along by searching for Christmas Past podcast on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and find show notes and more information about the show at Christmas Past subscribe to the podcast if you haven’t yet. And if you have a moment to tell a friend or leave a review, I’d really appreciate it. I hope you’re enjoying your Christmas season so far. I know I sure am And I’d also enjoy it if you would join me again next time for another story from Christmas Past