A Christmas Story (1972)
December 9, 1972
While Hanna-Barbera had been the kings of television animation for nearly 15 years by this point, holiday specials had not been an arena they had entered yet. They had done a Christmas episode once, “Christmas Flintstone” in 1964, but never a dedicated special. That changed in 1972, possibly sparked by the success of Rankin/Bass, when they created two holiday specials in partnership with Avco Broadcasting; “The Thanksgiving That Almost Wasn’t” on November 21st, and “A Christmas Story” just over two weeks later on December 9th.
The special centers around a dog named Goober and a mouse named Gumdrop on their journey to find Santa. Gumdrop finds out that the letter Goober’s owner Timmy wrote to Santa was never mailed, which sparks worry in both that he may stop believing if Santa doesn’t visit, so they head off to intercept him on his visit to the city of Middletown. What follows is many near-encounters, first when they find out he is at the orphanage, only to just miss him when they make it there. Then they get to a house where he’s at, but the wind carries away their letter and they have to run off and get it. Afterwards, they get help from animals throughout the city to track down Santa, and have to sort through numerous people in Santa costumes before finding the real one, but once again being too late. They return back home, giving up and being unsure if Santa would still arrive. But, to their surprise, Santa did arrive and found Timmy’s letter, delivering all the gifts he wanted and even flying by the window that morning so Timmy can see for certain that he is real.
“A Christmas Story” is a short little special, and feel likes typical Hanna-Barbera fare, with almost all the positives and negatives that brings with it (but thankfully there is no laugh track). William Hanna and Joseph Barbera themselves directed the special, while Joe Ruby and Ken Spears (the creators of Scooby-Doo) wrote the script. The special also featured Hanna-Barbera alumnis Daws Butler, Paul Winchell, Don Messick, and Janet Waldo. The most notable thing about this special is perhaps the music, directed by Hoyt Curtin (who had just returned to Hanna-Barbera after leaving in 1965; he would remain on-board until his retirement in 1986). Four original songs were produced for the special, three of which would later be reused in 1977’s “A Flintstone Christmas” and 1980’s “Yogi’s First Christmas”.
A Very Merry Cricket
December 14, 1973
Chuck Jones Enterprises
On April 24th, 1973, acclaimed animation director Chuck Jones adapted author George Selden’s famous children’s book “The Cricket in Times Square” into a half-hour TV special. It proved popular enough that a sequel was quickly ordered, and less than 8 months later, “A Very Merry Cricket” premiered with Selden helping to pen the script.
The special opens up with a rather unsettling scene, as rather than show a city united by Christmas, it is one of pure chaos, with off-key Christmas music and distorted images. As Harry the kitten (voiced by Les Tremayne) reads through a book of Christmas stories and poems, speaking of hospitality and merriment, Tucker the mouse (voiced by Mel Blanc) points out how hypocritical this is in relation to the sounds they hear outside. They talk about what they can do to possibly put some of the true spirit of Christmas back into the city, and they decide to get Chester Cricket (also voiced by Tremayne), who had united the city with his music once before.
Harry and Tucker take a train to Chester, who is currently living in a music store in Sunnyslope, Connecticut, and manage to convince him to come back to NYC to help out with the problem. After saving Tucker from a hungry cat, and Harry from an angry dog, they catch the train back just in time. Seeing the chaos in the city, Chester worries at first that he may be unable to even be heard over the sheer noise, and indeed he isn’t heard at all. But, by some miracle, the city’s power grid overloads and the city goes silent. This proves to be Chester’s chance, and by playing several hymns, the entire city joins in song and unites.
While this isn’t as well-known or polished as Chuck Jones’s Grinch special, and indeed there is a certain level of requirement to watch the previous Cricket special (though it is briefly recapped), it is still very well animated in Jones’s classic style. The characters would be revisited by Jones one more time in 1975 with the release of “Yankee Doodle Cricket”.
The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas
December 17, 1973
Like “Santa and the Three Bears” two years earlier, “The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas” presents a story about a bear who decides to stay awake during the hibernation season to experience Christmas. Narrated by Casey Kasem, the special follows Ted E. Bear (voiced by comedian/musician Tom Smothers), a young bear who believes in Christmas even though the rest of the bears doubt its existence. After being fired from his job at a honey factory, he makes his way to the big city in search of Christmas.
He soon finds himself in a toy store and gets locked inside, but soon finds a way back outside through a vent, finding himself face-to-face with Santa Claus. Ted E. asks the man in red where Christmas is, to which Santa directs him to an apartment. Ted E. takes a nap underneath a Christmas tree in the apartment, and the next morning wakes up to find Christmas in front of him; the joy of a little human girl receiving a teddy bear for Christmas.
This special is best if the viewer not think too much about the internal logic of the story (Ted E. is a working class bear in a city populated by bears who winds up the teddy bear of a human girl). While the special aired on a major network with a relatively well-known studio behind it, as well as a voice cast of celebrities (in addition to Kasem and Smothers, Barbara Feldon and Arte Johnson also provided voices), the special quickly fell into obscurity. However, the character was revived in the early 80’s with a line of toys and books, as well as two (extremely low-budget) specials for the Halloween and Thanksgiving seasons.
Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus
December 6, 1974
Bill Melendez Productions
Based on the famous newspaper editorial, the special centers around young Virginia O’Hanlon, a little girl living in the year 1897. Virginia’s teacher gives her class an assignment to write a paper about Christmas; Virginia asks if she can write about Santa, and while her teacher approves, the rest of her classmates laugh. After school, they tease her about her belief in Santa, saying he’s just “kids stuff”. Virginia then goes around town, asking various adults about Santa, but not getting a clear answer. Later that night, her father suggests that she write to The Sun, a popular newspaper of the time, to ask for their opinion. Once her letter reaches the editor, he struggles for a few days to come up with an answer, during which Virginia slowly loses faith and continues to get teased. But eventually, after the editor is shown displays of generosity from the family of a newspaper boy and a group of carolers, her letter is published, with the reassurance that there is a Santa Claus.
The special looks and feels like a Peanuts special, and for good reason as it was directed by Bill Melendez, who was in charge of many of the classic Peanuts TV specials. In addition to a cast of child actors, “Yes Virginia” is narrated by Jim Backus (voice of Mister Magoo) and features songs from Jimmy Osmond.
The City That Forgot About Christmas
Screen Images Productions
Produced a full four years after “Christmas Is”, “The City That Forgot About Christmas” features the return of Benji and his dog Waldo. Things seem to have moved in real time for Benji, as he’s now older with less Davey & Goliath influence and more the feel of a Filmation cartoon of the time. The special starts out with Waldo accidentally knocking over the family Christmas tree, to which Benji’s father orders Benji to get the dog out of the house. Frustrated, Benji finds himself wishing there wasn’t a Christmas as his parents don’t seem to have the time or patience to spend it with him, and goes with his friend to visit his grandfather who is working in his toolshed. His grandfather then tells a story, about a city that forgot the meaning of Christmas, and by extension the meaning of love.
The city is visited by a traveling carpenter named Matthew, who begins teaching the city about Jesus and builds them a nativity scene. This angers the mayor, who then steals the baby Jesus as Matthew had said they couldn’t have a Christmas without a baby Jesus. Matthew is hurt, feeling his work to save the city was in vain, and disappears. The city is lost at first, but realizes that the most important thing isn’t some wooden representation of Jesus, but the real birth itself. So on Christmas Eve, they place a real baby in the nativity and join together in song. Off in the distance, Matthew looks on the city and leaves, his work now done. Through the story, Benji changes his mind about wanting Christmas to go away.
Based on the book by Mary Warren, “The City That Forgot About Christmas” is an interesting special, though the bookend parts with Benji and Waldo ultimately feel unnecessary, especially as the characters had not been used for four years and (unlike “Christmas Is”) play no role in the actual story. Benji and Waldo would only be revived one more time in 1976 for “Freedom Is”, a holiday special to tie in with the bicentennial.
Kevin Measimer on December 22, 2016:
Always well done. Wish the "like" button still existed. Keep up the good work.