Rankin/Bass Retrospective - The Year Without a Santa Claus
The early 70’s were a slow period for Rankin/Bass on the stop-motion front. That’s not to say it was slow for the company; between January 1971 and November 1974, they managed to turn out four tv shows, six specials, and one live-action film. But only two of those specials were stop-motion; 1972’s “Here Comes Peter Cottontail”, their first Easter special, and 1973’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, which heavily featured actor Danny Kaye. But it had been four years since their last Christmas special, and it was time to have a crack at it again.
In 1956, Good Housekeeping magazine published a poem written by Phyllis McGinley titled “The Year Without a Santa Claus”. The poem told of a year long ago when Santa, feeling old and worn out, decided to take a vacation from Christmas for a year. The children of the Earth were in great sorrow as news reached around the world, crying endlessly at the thought of a Christmas without Santa. But one boy, Ignatius Thistlewhite, stands up and persuades the children to understand that even Santa needs a holiday, that Christmas is just as much about giving as it is receiving. With these words in mind, a campaign is launched to give back to Santa, and every child in the world sends gifts to him to show their appreciation. Santa is so moved by this display that he decides not to take the year off, and goes on his annual flight as planned.
This poem turned out to be popular enough that, the following year, it was turned into a picture book with illustrations by Kurt Werth. In 1968, just a few months before his death, Boris Karloff narrated an LP record version of the story produced by Capitol Records.
It was this story then that writer William Keenan turned into the 1974 stop-motion special. Keenan had gotten his start as a producer on Rankin/Bass’s “The King Kong Show” in 1966 and writing the dialogue for the US version of “King Kong Lives” the following year. After a brief two year stint at Filmation, he returned to Rankin/Bass and wrote scripts for most of their television series between “The Smokey Bear Show” and “Festival of Family Classics”. It was in 1973 that he began dipping his toes into the realm of live-action by doing scripts for “The Partridge Family” and “The Six Million Dollar Man”, a realm he would stay in for the next ten years. But before that, he was given one last assignment at Rankin/Bass, to write the script for their next big holiday production.
December 10, 1974
The story of the special does actually follow the poem to a certain extent. Santa is sick at the North Pole and, under advice from his doctor (who feels no one cares about Christmas anymore or even believes in Santa anymore), decides to cancel Christmas for the first time. The news makes headlines across the world, and the children can’t stop crying. In an attempt to convince Santa to go through with his flight, Mrs. Claus decides to send two elves, Jingle and Jangle, out into the world to find proof that there is still Christmas spirit left somewhere.
Flying along on Vixen, they arrive in Southtown U.S.A., a place where it hasn’t snowed in 100 years. They ask a boy named Ignatius Thistlewhite (or “Iggy”) if he believes in Santa, to which he replies that Santa is for little kids. As Vixen is captured by a dog catcher and the elves run off to get her back, Iggy goes home and runs into an old man with a red suit and a cold calling himself “Mr. Claus” (pronounced with a long “u”). His family invites the man inside for lunch, and after Iggy’s father recalls a time when he met Santa when he was younger, Iggy begins to change his mind; once he sees Mr. Claus leaving on a flying reindeer, he’s fully convinced.
Going with Jingle and Jangle to the mayor’s office, they plead a case for him to release Vixen from the pound. The mayor laughs at their claims of being elves and of Vixen being a reindeer, so he proposes an idea: If they can make it snow in Southtown on Christmas, he will release Vixen and declare a holiday for Santa. At this same time, Santa is at the pound paying Vixen’s fine, but the elves don’t know this and agree with the mayor’s plan.
This is when the special gets to what it is best known for: The Miser Brothers. Elemental warlocks, Snow Miser and Heat Miser, who control the weather and are in constant warfare with each other for territory, are easily two of the most colorful characters ever created by Rankin/Bass. Both introduce themselves with big choreographed musical numbers, are followed by numerous mini-misers who follow their every word, and both command huge personalities that make them the center of attention. In what is honestly an otherwise standard Christmas special, they are the breakout characters of the piece, giving a jolt of life to the story just as it needs it most.
Mrs. Claus joins the elves and Iggy, and they make their way to Snow Miser’s fortress to discuss the possibility of making it snow in Southtown. He says he would love to, but Heat Miser would only turn whatever snow storm he’d send into rain, so they meet up with his brother. Heat Miser is reluctant, but decides to allow it on one condition: that Snow Miser gives up the North Pole. Snow Miser is furious and the two launch into a scuffle, leaving Mrs. Claus with no choice but to go to the top, to Mother Nature herself.
Mother Nature talks the Miser Brothers into cooperating with each other, and soon it begins to snow in Southtown. Newspapers publish the news, and Santa is given a national holiday with the world’s support to take this year off. The children around the world start sending him gifts to show their appreciation. However, it is one letter from a little girl that hits Santa the hardest, who wrote that she’ll have a blue Christmas without him (complete with song). Touched by the letter and the gifts that followed, Santa decides to go through with the Christmas flight, starting by riding down Southtown’s main street, newly christened “Santa Claus Lane”.
The Miser Legacy
There is a certain level of consistency between this special and “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” four years earlier. Besides some nods to the earlier special, Mickey Rooney returns to voice Santa and Paul Conker, Jr. returns to do the designs, with the songs being once more sung by the “Wee Winter Singers” (plus Maury Laws and Jules Bass doing the music as always). Mrs. Claus, who narrates the special, is voiced by Shirley Booth; this would be Booth’s last role before retiring, ending a 50 year long career that had begun on Broadway in 1925. This is also the last role to date for Bradley Bolke (best known for Chumley in Tennessee Tuxedo), who voiced Jangle, while Bob McFadden voiced Jingle. Snow Miser and Heat Miser were voiced by Dick Shawn and George S. Irving respectively, both well-known character actors which helped bolster their performances.
In 2006, “The Year Without a Santa Claus” was remade into a live-action special for NBC. At 85 minutes long, it is nearly double the length of the original, and features actors such as John Goodman in its cast. Nearly the songs were removed from this, save for a musical number from the Miser Brothers.
Indeed, as mentioned before, it really is the Miser Brothers that are the lasting legacy of this special. In 2008, the two were given their own holiday special for ABC Family, “A Miser Brothers’ Christmas”, animated in stop-motion by Cuppa Coffee Studios. This sequel featured the return of both Mickey Rooney as Santa and George S. Irving as Heat Miser a full 34 years after the original.
As for “The Year Without a Santa Claus” itself, it revitalized Rankin/Bass as a Christmas powerhouse, and ushered in the company's silver age. Here, from 1974 to 1981, there was no year without a Santa Claus, and Rankin/Bass was back to tell the world.