We need to talk about Rankin/Bass.
You probably have fond memories of their whimsical animated holiday specials, like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman. Maybe you even remember learning your Santa mythology from Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, or singing along with the wacky Miser Brothers in The Year Without a Santa Claus.
What you may not remember, thanks to network edits, the invention of the fast-forward button, or even just the passage of time, is how weird and often nightmarish some of these shows were. Today, we’ll look back at just a few of the ways in which Rankin/Bass made Christmas the most WTF time of the year.
1. The time Santa Claus ordered kids to kiss him (Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, 1970)
“Be Prepared to Pay” is one of the more infamous songs in the Rankin/Bass canon. For years, it was cut out of broadcasts of Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town, along with the less creepy (but still WTF-worthy) psychedelic freakout, “My World Is Beginning Today.”
In “Be Prepared to Pay,” which is sadly unavailable on YouTube, Mickey Rooney’s Santa visits the children of Sombertown and cheers them up with gifts — as long as they sit on his lap and kiss him first.
2. The time making kids kiss him wasn’t creepy enough, so Santa took to sneaking into their rooms at night and serenading them (The Year Without a Santa Claus, 1974)
Seriously, kids, don’t ever doubt the existence of Santa Claus, because if you do, he will hunt you down in the middle of the night, sit on your bed, and sing at you about how real he is, just like he did to Ignatius Thistlewhite’s father many years ago.
Iggy’s dad relates this story to his doubting son, and then he’s joined by Santa Claus himself for the rousing final chorus: “Just believe in Santa Claus/Like you believe in love/Just believe in Santa Claus/And everything he does/Wipe that question from your mind/Yes, he does exist/Just like love, he’s always there/Waiting to be missed.”
3. The time a caveman voiced by Morey Amsterdam led a parade of dinosaurs in song to teach Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer about the power of positive thinking (Rudolph’s Shiny New Year, 1976)
There are many WTF-worthy moments in Rudolph’s Shiny New Year, as you might expect from a show special in which the Baby New Year feels self-conscious about his big ears, runs away from home, and is almost kidnapped by a vulture seeking immortality, before finally being saved by a reindeer, a whale, a camel, a bear, a soldier, a guy who is definitely not Ben Franklin, and a caveman.
Morey Amsterdam’s caveman steals the show with this splashy little number, which has inspired several… enthusiastic… YouTube covers.
4. The time all Christmas-related action stopped so Ethel Merman could sing a torch song because, dammit, she was Ethel Merman (Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July, 1979)
Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July is 97 minutes of nonsense so convoluted and sprawling that it makes Shiny New Year look like a tautly plotted thriller.
You want wizards, fairy queens, genies, and magical amulets? You’ve got ’em. You want shady, cigar-smoking businessmen and scheming, jealous reindeer? You’ll have them, too. And if you want all of this plus a seaside circus love story between a ballerina and an ice-cream man who flies around in a hot-air balloon, well, this is most definitely the special for you.
The mother of the ballerina, and owner of the circus, is a brassy cowgirl played by Ethel Merman (one of her final roles before her death in 1984), and somewhere in the middle of all of this, she decides to confide in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer about her troubled relationships with men.
5. That time a bunch of immortal elves, nymphs, and demons decided whether Santa Claus should live or die (The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus, 1985)
Woe unto all the parents who flipped open their TV guides at Christmas in 1985 and said, “What happy holiday family fun is on TV tonight? The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus? Made by those Rudolph and Frosty guys! This will be great to watch with the kids!”
If the kids didn’t lose it at the sight of the Commander of the Wind Demons, or the sound of the creepy opening chant (“IM-MOR-TA-LI-TYYYYYYYYYYYY!”), they were surely in tears by the time the Great Ak announced, “Tonight, when [Santa] returns from his final ride, he will be visited by the Spirit of Death.” And all of this happens within the first four minutes.
Based on the L. Frank Baum book of the same name, The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus is the most WTF of all Rankin/Bass Christmas specials and must be seen to be believed. Luckily, it (and many other Rankin/Bass specials) is available at DailyMotion, as well as airing on the Freeform network during the holiday season.