Rankin/Bass Retrospective: 'The Stingiest Man in Town'
For a moment, let's roll the clock back, way back, to when television broadcasting was still in its infancy. During the early days of television, nearly all programs were broadcasted live (a primary reason why almost nothing from that period survives), and one of the more popular types of programs were live theatre. NBC had jumped on this very early on, with “The Philco Television Playhouse” (sponsored by television manufacturer Philco) premiering on October 3, 1948. This program was very successful, adapting Broadway plays, musicals, novels, plus some original stories, and served as the launching pad for many actors such as Jose Ferrer and Eli Wallach.
Becoming effectively two shows in 1951, with the “Goodyear Television Playhouse” (sponsored by tire company Goodyear) broadcasting on alternating weeks starting in 1951, the program continued to move along until October 1955, when Philco dropped their sponsorship. Two weeks later, with no real difference other than the sponsor, “The Alcoa Hour” (sponsored by aluminum manufacturer Alcoa) premiered, and ran for two years alongside the Goodyear show before NBC ended their live theatre programs in late 1957. In the middle of the run of the Alcoa Hour, on December 23rd, 1956, the show performed one of its most popular episodes, “The Stingiest Man in Town”.
A musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol”, “The Stingiest Man in Town” starred Basil Rathbone (best known for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes) as Scrooge and Martyn Green as Bob Cratchit. It was a very ambitious production, featuring choreographed dance sequences, video effects such as snow overlayed on the image and a transparency effect for the ghostly characters, as well as being broadcasted in color (NBC was at the forefront of color TV broadcasting during the second half of the 50’s), and it garnered wide praise from critics and audiences alike.
Music for the special was written by Fred Speilman and Janice Torre, and it became the only Alcoa Hour production to receive an original cast recording, available that same holiday season. For many, this album became the only way to enjoy the play, as much like nearly all of its live contemporaries, the Alcoa Hour version of “The Stingiest Man in Town” was long thought lost after the initial broadcast. That is, until a kinescope copy (albeit in black and white) turned up in the possession of a retired Alcoa executive in the late 2000’s, and received a DVD release in late 2011.
But in the meantime, audiences had one other option when it came to “The Stingiest Man in Town”. Because exactly twenty two years after that original live broadcast, and also airing on NBC, it received the Rankin/Bass animated treatment.
The Stingiest Man in Town
December 23, 1978
It’s essentially the classic story everyone knows, about a stingy old man named Ebenezer Scrooge (voiced by Walter Matthau) who only cares about his fortune and not the wellbeing of others.
He is visited on Christmas Eve by the ghost of his old work partner, Jacob Marley (Theodore Bikel), who has been condemned to an eternity of suffering for his greed, and warns Scrooge to change his ways or his punishment will be even worse.
To redeem him, Scrooge is visited by three more spirits, the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, who show him the wrongs he has inflicted in the pursuit of wealth and the consequences of his actions towards others.
In the end, he vows to become a better person and begins to show kindness towards his nephew (voiced by Dennis Day) and the family of his employee Bob Cratchit (Sonny Melendrez), including the youngest son Tiny Tim.
While it does follow the general structure of the original story, as well as most of the 1956 TV play it borrows its name from (as well as using the original Speilman/Torre songs from that production), this version does have its touches of Rankin/Bass charm as well. Much like other Rankin/Bass specials (excluding the ones narrated by celebrity caricatures), the story is narrated by a talking animal who follows the story as it goes. In this case, it’s a bug named B.A.H. Humbug, voiced by Tom Bosley. He lives in Scrooge’s office and follows him home on that fateful night, witnessing each of the ghosts as they arrive. Appropriately, he’s left behind when Scrooge is spirited away to the past and future, but he comes along during the trip through Christmas Present.
The animation in this special was done by the Japanese studio Topcraft, who previously worked on “Twas the Night Before Christmas” and “Frosty’s Winter Wonderland” for Rankin/Bass, as well as the TV adaptation of The Hobbit, and actually did air in Japan just a day after its US broadcast. As it happened, this would be the last holiday special they worked on, but by no means the last collaboration with Rankin/Bass, as they would work on four more projects before Topcraft split in two. One half of the studio became Studio Ghibli, with the remaining members forming Pacific Animation Corporation, who would become the primary animation studio for Rankin/Bass in their final years.
It can be argued at great length which version of “The Stingiest Man in Town” is the better one, and by extension which of the countless adaptations of “A Christmas Carol” is best. But as a good old fashioned Rankin/Bass version of the classic story, this is one special that is worth a look.