Rankin/Bass Retrospective: 'The Little Drummer Boy Book II'/'Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey'
Within the Rankin/Bass pantheon, it’s safe to agree that the vast majority of their specials are focused on the modern Christmas mythos of Santa Claus and winter in general. However, there have also been a few specials that focus more on the spiritual Christian side of the holiday. The majority of these were three specials from the mid-70’s, beginning with 1975’s “The First Christmas” (which was more about the religious spirit of Christmas than the Christmas story itself).
The following year, as part of Rankin/Bass’s trio of sequels which included “Frosty’s Winter Wonderland” and “Rudolph’s Shiny New Year”, they also went back to their 1968 special about a boy with a drum who played for baby Jesus, and continued his story.
The Little Drummer Boy, Book II
December 13, 1976
“Book II” picks up immediately after the events of the original special, as it begins with the titular drummer boy, Aaron, playing his drum for baby Jesus. One of the three wise men, King Melchior (voiced by Ray Owens), then invites Aaron to help him on his mission to spread the word about the birth of the savior. The plan is to meet with a nearby bell maker named Simeon, who has created a set of large silver bells to ring out as an announcement for the people that the savior has been born.
However, the plan goes awry when a Roman tax collector named Brutus (voiced by Zero Mostel) and his soldiers visit Simeon to collect on his taxes, finding him hiding under a sheet with the bells. The Romans then take the bells as payment. Later, Aaron and Melchior meet with Simeon and try to come up with a plan to get the bells back. Aaron suggests that, if they can find the camp that the Romans have set up, he and his animals can enter and entertain them with a song, which would give them enough time to take the bells.
At the camp, Brutus and his assistant Plato discuss the value of money, and their intention to melt the bells down into silver bricks to take for themselves instead of giving to the emperor. It’s then that Aaron and his animals arrive, offering to play for them in exchange for money and supplies. The Romans laugh at the drummer boy for this suggestion, and instead take his drum and sticks, using them to start the fire for the bells. Aaron becomes distraught, that the drum he used to play for the baby has now been destroyed.
But, this all provides enough of a distraction for Aaron’s animals to begin moving the bells. Melchior and Simeon help out too, while Aaron makes his escape before the soldiers realize what’s happened, and they all bury the bells underneath a massive sand dune. The Romans search for the bells, but turn up with nothing. Brutus eventually calls the search off, electing to speak nothing of what happened to his superiors back in Rome.
The next morning, Aaron and the others dig up the bells and set them up to be played. Far and wide, people hear the bells ringing, as Melchior goes to the city to inform the people of what it means. Simeon then gives Aaron one last task, to lead the people to the manger, giving him a new drum and sticks. Playing on his drum, Aaron marches the people in the city toward the manger, and he once more plays his drum for the baby, now joined by a great crowd of witnesses.
“The Little Drummer Boy, Book II” is an interesting special in that, out of the three 1976 specials Rankin/Bass made (all of which were sequels to earlier specials), this one operates the most directly as a sequel, practically adding an additional half hour to the original special’s story (even sharing the same narrator, Greer Garson). This can also be seen as its downfall, being that it arguably doesn’t quite work without having seen the original first, and due to way that the Rankin/Bass library was split in half in 1987, there hasn’t been a time where both were broadcast or released together in a very long time (if ever). As a result, this special has easily become the most forgotten out of the 1976 trio.
It does have its moments though. Easily the most entertaining part of the special is “Money, Money, Money”, a song sung by Brutus about the value of money for services instead of paying with goods. This is notable in that it’s possibly the only time that a Rankin/Bass special has given a villain his own song.
But what makes this special even more notable is that, out of all the Rankin/Bass specials, “The Little Drummer Boy, Book II” was the only one nominated for an Emmy award. For the 1977 Primetime Emmy Awards, it was nominated for “Outstanding Children’s Program”, but lost to the TV mini-series “Ballet Shoes”. Nevertheless, this was still a huge accomplishment for the studio, one that likely made the special a success in their eyes.
Nestor, The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey
December 3, 1977
The following year, Rankin/Bass followed up their Little Drummer Boy sequel with another story set during the story of Jesus’ birth. Based on a song by Gene Autry (well known for also singing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer), the focus shifted to the story of donkey who carried Mary to Bethlehem. The story is told by Santa’s donkey, Speiltoe (voiced by Roger Miller), who narrates the story of his ancestor, Nestor.
Nestor (voiced by Shelly Hines) was a small donkey kept in a stable along with his mother (Linda Gary), both owned by an ugly man named Olaf (Paul Frees). Nestor was born with ears that stretched down to the ground, which gave himself all kinds of trouble and made him the focus of ridicule from the other animals in the stable. The one time of the year they were nice to him was on the Winter Solstice, when all the animals would celebrate.
But, on the Winter Solstice, Olaf arrived at the stable with Roman soldiers, selling them many of the young animals in exchange for silver coins. When the soldiers found Nestor, however, they were so offended by his appearance that they got the coins from back Olaf and took the rest of the animals for free. Olaf, furious, threw Nestor out into the cold to die. His mother ran out of the stable to be with her son, promising to protect him as the winter storm became worse, shielding him with her body. The next morning, Nestor awoken to find that while he survived the storm thanks to his mother, his mother had given her life for his.
Nestor made his way south, surviving the winter and eventually running into a cherub named Tilly (voiced by Brenda Vaccaro). She was sent to help guide Nestor, promising that his ears would one day help him do great things for another. Together, they traveled across the land and sea toward Bethlehem, eventually stopping in a place near the city where Tilly told Nestor to wait until “the time is right”, before she returns home to Heaven. There, he was taken by a desert merchant who began to try to sell him, but he was too silly looking for anyone to want him, and he was mocked even worse by the animals than he was back home.
One night, however, a couple heading toward Bethlehem met with the desert merchant looking for a donkey to help carry the woman there. Seeing how desperate they were, the merchant tried to sell Nestor for a high price, but when he saw a heavenly glow around Mary, he had a sudden change of heart and gave them Nestor for free.
As they followed the star to Bethlehem, a desert storm blew in, making it impossible to see. Nestor remembered what Tilly told him about his ears, and heard the voice of his mother, telling him to listen for the angels. With his long ears, he began to hear a multitude of angels singing, and he followed it to help guide Mary and Joseph towards Bethlehem, wrapping Mary in his ears for protection.
Arriving in Bethlehem, they found all the inns to be full, but Nestor decided to guide them to a stable, remembering the warmth of his own mother back in their stable. There, Mary gave birth, and Nestor was among the crowd who witnessed the baby Jesus. Afterward, Nestor finally returned home, now praised as a hero by Olaf and the animals in the stable, and remembered in the present as part of the nativity scene in Santa’s stable.
“Nestor, the Long Eared Christmas Donkey” is essentially a biblical version of the Rudolph story, about an animal born different and mocked for it, until he’s finally able to prove himself by using that difference to guide the way through a stormy night and save the day. While not quite having the same colorful cast of characters as Rudolph, it is a cute little story that fits right in with the rest of the Rankin/Bass Christmas stories. There are even some Rudolph related shout-outs for long time Rankin/Bass fans, namely Jingle and Jangle from “Rudolph’s Shiny New Year”, as well as Rudolph himself making a cameo at the end.
These two specials would end up being the last time Rankin/Bass touched upon the traditional Christmas story, with their remaining specials being based either on other stories or characters more tied to modern Christmas traditions. But with as few specials they made centered around the biblical side of the holiday, it could be said that this makes them, along with the original Drummer Boy, all the more memorable.