Behind the Christmas Music: The History of Rankin/Bass Animated Specials

11 Dec


You know the holiday season has begun in earnest when you turn on the TV and one of the classic tunes from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Frosty the Snowman starts up. Years after their first broadcast in the 1960’s, these adorable “Animagic” creations are etched in our collective pop culture memory. Here’s a little bit about the history behind the stop-motion music, and why these movies still command our hearts at Christmastime.

Rankin/Bass enjoyed mild success as a production company when it began in 1960, but they didn’t hit their stride until they put together the stop-motion classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in 1964. This film, an adaptation of the popular holiday song by Johnny Marks, includes folk singer Burl Ives as the voice of a narrating snowman who does his best to support poor Rudolph through his trying adolescence. With cheerful, playful songs like “We’re a Couple of Misfits” and “We Are Santa’s Elves,” Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer became the longest-running Christmas special to ever air on television.

After Rudolph, Rankin/Bass enjoyed modest success with The Cricket on the Hearth, which is based on Charles Dickens’ Christmas book of the same name, and a Thanksgiving special titled Mouse on the Mayflower. But their next big success came in 1968 with The Little Drummer Boy, another adaptation of a popular Christmas carol. This special tells the story of a young boy who played his drum for the birth of Jesus when he had no other gift. The program’s lyrics were written by producer Jules Bass, and the Vienna Boys’ Choir sang the titular song. The Little Drummer Boy furthered the tradition of Christmas specials based around popular holiday songs.


\Frosty the Snowman came to TV audiences in 1969. This was the first use of traditional cel animation rather than stop-motion animation for a Rankin/Bass special, and for that it may have lost a bit of the Christmas cheer and sweetness. Singer and pianist Jimmy Durante voiced the narrator, who also sang the titular song. Frosty is also featured in many Rankin/Bass sequels, including 1976’s Frosty’s Winter Wonderland and the 1979 crossover with Rudolph, Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July.


In 1970, Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town featured the voice of actor and dancer Fred Astaire as the narrator. This film rolled out a larger soundtrack of original music numbers than previous features. Robie Lester, a Grammy-nominated vocalist, voices Miss Jessica, the schoolteacher in a town that has banned Christmas cheer, and renowned voice actor Paul Frees gives life to the miserly Burgermeister Meisterburger. The story is told through songs like “The First Toymakers to the King” and “One Foot in Front of the Other,” all sung by the talented voice cast.


After these hits, Rankin/Bass produced a steady stream of holiday classics, such as The Year Without a Santa Claus and several sequels to the previous Christmas favorites. While the company stopped production in 1987, they still actively worked on making sure audiences enjoyed their holiday specials for years to come.


Even after being aired for over 50 years, these Rankin/Bass specials remain a hallmark of the Christmas season for viewers young and old. Their upbeat music, important messages, and beautiful animation are sure to enchant audiences for years to come. To see some of these Rankin/Bass specials, tune into ABC (details here), Netflix (which has Rudolph), or DTV streaming (info here) to get your Christmas fix.


Plus, all of these specials have produced soundtracks to spread the Christmas cheer whenever it’s needed – check YouTube, where free versions abound. Happy Holidays!

One Response to “Behind the Christmas Music: The History of Rankin/Bass Animated Specials”


  1. Silver & Gold Fashions For The 2015 Holiday Season | - December 23, 2015

    […] Behind the Christmas Music: The History of Rankin/Bass Animated Specials […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: