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How three animated holiday TV classics nearly got Grinched

11/26/2012 12:04 PM

11/27/2012 6:53 PM

For many TV viewers, Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without Rudolph, Charlie Brown and the Grinch.

These three animated holiday favorites have been part of our popular culture for more nearly five decades. Many viewers can't remember a time when Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas didn't air every season.

But would you believe that these Christmas classics all faced obstacles that could have prevented their getting on TV in the first place?

Charlie Brown overcame the longest odds. But Rudolph and the Grinch had hurdles to clear, as well.

Here are their stories.

The most famous reindeer of all

Before it became an unforgettable TV favorite in 1964, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was a hit Gene Autry song. But if not for animator Arthur Rankin Jr.'s perseverance, the "most famous reindeer of all" might never have graced the small screen.

"The composer of the song, Johnny Marks, was my neighbor," Rankin says. "I kept saying, 'Let's do this,' and he'd resist. He was making a pretty good income from the song and he was fearful that it could be overexposed. But I finally prevailed."

Marks' fears proved unfounded. This year's telecast about the misfit reindeer that saves Christmas is its 49th.

Rankin chose to film Rudolph in the unique stop-motion animation style that he dubbed "Animagic." Rick Goldschmidt, author of The Enchanted World of Rankin/Bass, suggests the technique makes "three-dimensional characters look like Christmas ornaments that had surreally come to life."

It was a painstaking process, but worth the effort.

"It took a year to photograph it," Rankin recalls. "That doesn't include scripts and recording and all those things that come first.

"Stop-motion animation requires building the figure, as opposed to drawing it. But you shoot it the same way you shoot animation, which is one frame at a time."

Rankin also teamed with songwriter Jules Bass on Frosty the Snowman (linear animation) and The Little Drummer Boy (Animagic).

Airs 7 p.m. Dec. 4, on KTVT/Channel 11.

You're a mean one,

Mr. Grinch

"Nobody ever thinks anything they do is going to endure."

So said the late Chuck Jones, the legendary cartoonist who drew Bugs Bunny and created the Roadrunner. Another of his classics is How the Grinch Stole Christmas, a cartoon he directed, produced and co-wrote. Grinch was published in book form in 1957 by the late Theodor S. Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss.

"To see it still popular after 30 years," Jones said when interviewed in the late 1990s, "I'm surprised by that."

Imagine how mind-boggling it would be if he could see that this year's telecast will be its 47th.

"Nobody wanted to buy it," Jones said of Grinch's beginnings in 1966. "I had done the storyboard and I presented it 22 times to sponsors, to everyone who usually buys children's shows, and none of them bought it.

"I finally found the Foundation for Commercials Banks to sponsor it. Of course, I couldn't see why they would buy the thing when it says, 'Christmas doesn't come from a store.' Exactly what a banker would eschew."

It also was a challenge for Jones to fill a 30-minute time slot with the original Seuss story about a sourpuss who swipes Christmas from the town of Whoville.

"It was a wonderful book," Jones said, "but it only ran about 12 minutes when reading it. So we had to extend the story while still holding on to the character."

One of Jones' favorite characters was developed during that expansion: Max, the reindeer dog, modeled after a clumsy fox terrier Jones had as a boy.

"The dog is a very important character in the show," Jones said. "Through Max's eyes, we see how vile the Grinch has become."

Airs at 7 p.m. Tuesday on WFAA/Channel 8.

Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!

Cartoonist Charles Schulz and producer Lee Mendelson met so much resistance when making A Charlie Brown Christmas that the Peanuts gang almost never made it to TV.

In June 1965, Schulz and Mendelson got a network go-ahead to make a Christmas special and almost immediately, a series of battles over format, style and story began.

"First, we were under pressure to do it as an hour show, a big extravaganza like Rudolph," Mendelson says. "But we wanted to do a half-hour.

"Next we got into it because we wanted to cast real children to do the voices instead of adult actors. Then we told them we wanted to use jazz. Then we told them we wanted to read a short passage from the Bible [in which Linus tells Charlie what Christmas is all about].

"The network kept telling us, 'You've got to be an hour, you can't use children, you can't use jazz, you can't use religion.' Charles would say, 'Why not?' And eventually we'd get our way."

When the finished product was turned in, the two network executives who screened it hated it. But ratings were phenomenal. "After that, one executive called me and said he wanted to buy four more years," Mendelson says. "But before he hung up, he told me, 'My aunt in New Jersey saw it and she hated it, too!'"

Schulz & Co. were right and the TV exec's aunt was wrong. This year will be the show's 48th on TV.

Airs 7 p.m. Wednesday on WFAA/Channel 8.

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