Rankin/Bass Retrospective - Santa Claus is Comin' to Town

Updated on December 19, 2016

By 1970, developing a television special around a popular Christmas song was proving to be the right way to go. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was still doing extremely well in annual repeats seven years after its debut, The Little Drummer Boy had been more well-received than the literary-based Cricket on the Hearth, and Frosty the Snowman had become an immediate success. It only made sense for their next special to also take its basis from a Christmas jingle.

“Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” was written in 1934 by songwriters John Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie, a song about Gillespie had written the lyrics, while Coots composed most of the music within only ten minutes. Their publisher, Leo Feist Inc., rejected the song on the basis that it was too “silly” and a holiday song so squarely aimed at kids like it would never sell. The duo took the song next to performer Eddie Cantor who, at the time, ran a popular radio program, and were able to get a spot on his show that November. The morning after their song was performed, they received 100,000 orders for sheet music, which quadrupled by Christmas making it a number 1 hit.

Rankin/Bass writer Romeo Muller took the popular song and used it to weave together an origin story to Santa Claus.
Rankin/Bass writer Romeo Muller took the popular song and used it to weave together an origin story to Santa Claus.

Thirty-five years later, the song was still extremely popular and had become just as much a mainstay of Christmas playlists as Rudolph and Frosty. However, unlike those songs, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” doesn’t have a story, mostly being a warning to children to behave themselves if they want Santa to visit their homes. However, screenwriter Romeo Muller (who had written every Rankin/Bass holiday special thus far) realized one aspect of Christmas that hadn’t received much focus in popular culture and would still fit the title: The origin story of Santa Claus.

December 14, 1970

The story, narrated by mailman S.D. Kluger as he reads letters addressed to Santa, tells of the town of Sombertown, ruled with an iron fist by Burgermeister Meisterburger, who hates toys and has them outlawed. This had driven the Kringles, a family who had been toymakers to the previous rulers of Sombertown, into hiding. That is, however, until an abandoned baby winds up on their doorstep, with only the name “Claus” giving any indication of who he is. The Kringles take in the baby, giving him the name “Kris”, and raise him as their own.

Years later, Kris desires to see the Kringle family become beloved toymakers again, so he goes into Sombertown with a bag of toys and begins handing them out to the children. It is here that he meets schoolteacher Jessica, who tries to stop him at first, but quickly warms up to him. However, the same couldn’t be said for Burgermeister, who shows up and puts an arrest warrant out on Kris.

After a side adventure meeting a magic being known as the Winter Warlock, who is evil at first until Kris gives him a toy train and helps him overcome his fear of leaving his home, Kris finds out that Burgermeister has destroyed all the toys he handed out and the children are feeling miserable. So Kris and the Kringles take another bag of toys to the town, but this time Burgermeister is waiting for them, and arrest the entire family. Things seem bleak, until the Winter Warlock reveals a bag of magic reindeer food, which they feed to the local reindeer and break Kris out of jail.

Now an outlaw, Kris grows a beard, adopts his birth name of Claus, marries Jessica, and establishes a workshop with the Kringles at the North Pole. He chooses to limit his toy delivering escapades to one night a year, Christmas Eve, and continues to deliver presents long after the Burgermeister family line died out, becoming famous the world over.

Mickey Rooney provided the voice of Kris Kringle, marking his first portrayal of Santa Claus.
Mickey Rooney provided the voice of Kris Kringle, marking his first portrayal of Santa Claus.

Another Classic for the Ages

Once again animated in Japan with Rankin/Bass’s “Animagic” stop-motion style, “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” had an all-star cast behind it. Alongside Rankin/Bass mainstay Paul Frees (who voiced Meisterburger and the penguin Topper), the special got celebrities such as Mickey Rooney (Kris Kringle), Keenan Wynn (the Winter Warlock), Joan Gardner (Tanta Kringle), Robie Lester (Jessica), and Fred Astaire (the narrator, S.D. Kluger) to provide voices. Rooney and Astaire would reprise their roles in later specials, Rooney in particular becoming arguably the definitive Santa voice for Rankin/Bass.

Along with these is once again Maury Laws composing the music, as he did with Frosty and Rudolph. The lyrics to the special’s original songs were written by Jules Bass, once again displaying his songwriting talents with such classics as “The First Toymakers to the King” and “Put One Foot in Front of the Other”.

Premiering on December 14th of 1970 on ABC, Rankin/Bass had once again created an instant holiday classic. Like Frosty and Rudolph, the special has seen constant exposure on television every holiday season, presently on Freeform’s annual 25 Days of Christmas. In recent years, it has seen some censorship for content reasons, such as Kris doing dangerous stunts or certain lyrics seeming a bit more risque by today’s audiences. But nevertheless, it’s timeless charm still comes to town to entertain new generations every year.


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      Chad 2 months ago

      I'd like to know what John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie thought of this special, because they were both still alive when it premiered; Coots was 73 and Gillespie was 82 in December 1970.