Christmas Classics from the ‘60s

Early in the holiday season, signs of Christmas begin to appear. Neighbors decorate their homes, stores display festive goods, and the radio sings of snowfall. In no time, holiday traditions commence. For decades, these family affairs have included gathering together to watch holiday-themed TV movies. The 1960s produced some of the most memorable Christmas specials and, to this day, major television networks broadcast these tried-and-true favorites. Popular shows like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, and Frosty the Snowman have captivated audiences for generations. Their great stories, catchy songs, and cute characters continue to have modern appeal.

The animagic TV movie Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer debuted in early December 1964. By this time, people were already familiar with the story of Rudolph. In 1939, Montgomery Ward copywriter Robert May created the character and plot for a promotional booklet for the department store chain. That same year, May's brother-in-law Johnny Marks composed the title song. When Gene Autry recorded the song in 1947, it became a hit and radio staple for posterity. Over a decade later, writer Romeo Muller crafted the story for film. Animagic films, or stop-motion films, are made using flexible dolls that can be positioned to simulate movement when their poses are recorded frame-by-frame. This accounts for the jerky movements of the characters. The lack of fluid motion parallels the awkwardness of Rudolph and the story's other misfits. People can relate to Rudolph as he struggles to fit in among his peers. They know what it is like to be bullied and made fun of as Rudolph is for his one-of-a-kind nose.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has both visual and audio appeal. Besides its title song, the TV movie includes "Silver and Gold," which describes Yukon Cornelius, a character driven only by greed until Rudolph comes into his life by chance. The voice of the show's singing narrator Sam the Snowman is as memorable as the soundtrack. Legendary actor Burl Ives filled this role. Ives, who played Big Daddy alongside Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman in the blockbuster Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, speaks to the audience with genuine concern and optimism for the characters.

Not all of the Christmas classics included such stars in their voice casts. Children provided the voices for the 1965 classic A Charlie Brown Christmas. Before its debut, network executives despised the way the characters sounded. In fact, there wasn't much they liked about the Peanuts' first animated feature. Unlike the secular appeal of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the overt religious messages within A Charlie Brown Christmas worried them. They feared everything from the accompanying jazz soundtrack to the story's attitude towards society's tendency to commercialize Christmas.

Sponsors, however, recognized the marketing potential A Charlie Brown Christmas had, and the popular comic strip easily adapted to an animated short. In the end, Coca-Cola funded the project, which was completed in only six months. Charles M. Schulz, creator of the Peanuts comic strip and writer of the movie, hit the mark with this timeless and spiritual TV movie. When Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the rest of the Peanuts gang made their Christmas debut on TV, half of all Americans were watching. The continual love people of all ages have for this movie and its characters is clearly evident; the Peanuts brand earns nearly $2 billion annually.

By the mid-1960s, almost 90% of U.S. households owned a television set. With only a few channels available to them, viewers' choice of what to watch on TV was nothing like today's options. Plus, endless titles are now available to us online and in stores, like the 1966 TV movie How the Grinch Stole Christmas! Based on the book published by Dr. Seuss 10 years prior, the story teaches lessons about greed, compassion, and community that still resonate with today's audiences. Besides helping to produce the animated version, Seuss penned the lyrics to all of the movie's songs, including "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch." For that number, singer Thurl Ravenscroft provided the baritone. Perhaps Ravenscroft is best known for his voice-overs as Tony the Tiger, the mascot of Kellogg's Frosted Flakes.

Voice-overs for the misanthropic Grinch and the story's narrator were supplied by one and the same: silver-screen legend Boris Karloff. Known for his roles in horror movies like the 1931 Frankenstein, Karloff added a devious and sinister touch to the Grinch. The voice of Cindy Lou Who is a stark contrast to that of the Grinch. June Foray, "The Cartoon Queen," was selected for this part. Foray has spent a lifetime making voice-overs for countless characters. Her career spans from the 1940s to present day. Her ability to play a wide range of ages, dialects, and accents sets her apart from her colleagues. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons feature Foray, but perhaps her most memorable character is that of Natasha Fatale from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Three years after How the Grinch Stole Christmas! aired on TV, June Foray's voice was heard on another Christmas classic. She read the part of Karen in the 1969 broadcast of Frosty the Snowman.

Frosty the Snowman ends in song with the promise that Frosty will "be back again someday." Each year, he honors that promise. He will be in our snowy yards, in our holiday songs, and on our TVs. Like many of the other classic Christmas characters of the ‘60s, Frosty is a symbol for something larger than himself, and perhaps it is something so admirable that we keep watching his movie year after year: goodwill towards others.