“You know, I guess everybody is locked down, and they’re all thinking about Rankin/Bass.” Indeed, as Rick says, everyone is thinking about their favorite Rankin/Bass characters in quarantine this year. Rudolph, Frosty, Santa, the elves, and all the other magical North Pole creations are at the forefront of our minds. Rick Goldschmidt is the official Rankin/Bass historian, and his work spans the entire collaborative career of Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass. I’ve loved reading some of Rick’s writing, especially his first book, The Enchanted World of Rankin/Bass. Click here for more of Rick’s books and merchandise, and enjoy excepts of my conversation with him!
Allison: We see the specials every year, but there are so many people who have no clue how much there is to it besides Santa and Rudolph and Frosty. What gave you that final push to dive into this research…or did it feel more like a gradual thing through the years?
Rick: Well, I’m an artist, and my degree is in illustration. I really got into humorist illustration, and I have an eye for good art, and so did Arthur Rankin, because he was the art director at ABC television in the 50s, and he worked with some of the actors that I love, like James Dean, and Rod Steiger and people like that. I loved Jack Davis’s art in particular, when I was in college, and I didn’t even really know that much about him. I bought a book by him that was similar to my book, my first book, and I just looked at all of the things he did and I started collecting it–movie posters, Time Magazine covers, TV Guide covers, and stuff like that. And I just loved his art, so I got ahold of him and talked to him on the phone occasionally, and I knew he designed Mad Monster Party, which popped up on Chicago VHS channels when I was a little kid; they weren’t the main ABC, CBS, NBC. These were little rinky-dink stations that would play whatever they could get ahold of.
So Mad Monster Party, I knew it was the same people that did Rudolph and Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town and all that. It was such a cool thing to find, and when I realized Jack designed it, I just said, whatever happened to those two guys, Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass? ‘Cause really nothing was written about them at all. There was nothing, and I never read anything in a magazine or saw anything on TV. So [Jack] told me to call Paul Coker, Jr…I also loved his art from Mad Magazine. So, Paul said, “You should call Arthur.” And he gave me his number in Bermuda. And I called him up from work, actually, because I worked for the phone company, and I just said, “There really should be a book,” not that I wanted to write one or get into being the historian for Rankin/Bass. I didn’t even think about that.
I just said there should be a book, and he said to send two chapters, so I did.
I put two chapters together on a primitive computer because computers really weren’t too much in the mainstream. This was around ’91 or so. So I cut and pasted photos and typed pages and put them in a little presentation ringed binder, and I sent it to [Arthur], and he liked it, and on little mini cassette tapes, he just started talking about his career. For example, “When we did Rudolph in 1964, the phone was ringing off the hook.” He just gave me an outline of his career. So, I took that and just started scrounging up everything I could find. In other words, back then, you didn’t go on Ebay to buy stuff. There was a newspaper called The Toy Shop that everybody bought that had dealers in it, and you would buy stuff over the phone. So I bought a bunch of stuff like that and went to movie conventions, toy shows, anywhere I could find photos and anything related to Rankin/Bass. And when I had it all together finally, Arthur Rankin came out to visit me and brought some photos. And Paul Coker did the cover for me, and Arthur showed it to Jules, they went through it and made some minor changes, and then that was it.
When that came out, we did some radio interviews and promotion and so forth, and Arthur did a signing in New York while I was doing one in Chicago, and we just kind of became friends, and then he started referring people to me, because he’d be like, “Rick knows more about this than I do, give him a call.” I decided to do another book on Rudolph a few years later because that’s my favorite. And then we did a thing at the museum in New York a few years after that.
Allison: Yeah, I’ve watched some footage of that.
Rick: I did the Mad Monster Party book because that was on an equal level as Rudolph, and then over time I just worked on more projects, became the go-to person for Rankin/Bass, and when Arthur died in 2014, I did a book called The Arthur Rankin Scrapbook, which includes his memorial and his gravesite. It also has his first scrapbook in it–he kept a scrapbook at Densu in Japan. My business partner Wes and I [bought it] and made it into a book. It’s just been a lot of different things since that first book came out where I pretty much became the studio over time.
Allison: And I’m sure it was just invaluable to have the firsthand sources and to become so close to Arthur Rankin. One thing I noticed watching those old interviews was that he was very matter-of-fact, and I did see him defer to you. And even when a gentleman asked about the little tune at the very end of all the productions, it was kind of funny watching [Arthur] basically go, “I don’t know, we wanted something simple.”
What was it like having such a close relationship with him all those years? Did that just continue to fuel your interest in the work?
Rick: Arthur was a very producer-type person. He was in control, like you said, he was matter-of-fact. When we talked on the phone, it was rare that he didn’t get straight to the point of why he was calling, [but] we did have a few conversations like that where he would really open up with me. In fact, when I was in New York for that museum thing, the next morning he took us out to breakfast at The Plaza, over by Central Park. We walked over there, me and some of the other people he works with, and I realized where he lived in New York was like an old building that he had a loft in, it kind of looked like from the 70s, and we walked over to The Plaza, which is legendary…As we walked over, Tiffany’s was in between his place and The Plaza, and I like the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s, so his place was worth millions because of where it was located in Manhattan.
He sent me to a Broadway musical, too. So I really got to experience New York. He would always call me from New York because he split his time between New York and Bermuda, so it was unusual.
But you mentioned that little flute music at the very end. Another close relationship I had was with Maury Laws. Maury, even though he was older, he died at 95 like a year and a half ago. But he had a young son who lived in Chicago, John, who was only 25, if that.
When [Maury] would visit his young son, I would go downtown and meet him for dinner. So I did that three or four times. Whenever we got together, we would talk music because I’m a musician, too. And I knew I was on his level…he was a guitar player, too, which is what I am. He really appreciated that I appreciated his music. So we had a really close friendship, too.
The funny thing is, I started doing this right out of college. It was maybe three years after I was out of college that I got ahold of Arthur Rankin and started this stuff. So back then, when Arthur came to visit me, he was in his 60s. He was around 60, Paul Coker was, Jack Davis was, Maury Laws was, and over the years (I realized I’ve been doing this for 30 years), if they’re still living, they’re in their 90s. If I didn’t talk to them at that time, then I wouldn’t have been able to get all the information and whatever they had left, whatever they saved. I wouldn’t have been able to get that. I’m kind of the key to the history of it now. The only one left is Jules Bass.
Rick explained that Rankin and Bass have been compared to two of their greatest characters, the Snow Miser and the Heat Miser. Arthur Rankin was the extrovert, and Jules Bass was the introvert.
Allison: All of the stop-motion figures aren’t all in one place, they’re scattered all over the world?
Rick: Most of them are in Japan, there are photos in my books of a lot of the ones that we found. There are some in the US that I’ve appeared with, a bunch of pictures of those, we even put them in the 20th anniversary of The Enchanted World which is 400-something pages. That’s my biggest-selling book. I think what happened this year, besides everyone watching AMC and Freeform and all the places you can see Rankin/Bass now, sometimes I help with TV shows. There was one I just helped with called Rutherford Falls that’s owned by Universal. It’s on Peacock. They needed an image from one of the shows, which I had, and then I licensed it to them. I did that with a show for Netflix about four or five months ago.
Allison: The Movies That Made Us, for Elf?
Rick: Yeah…People were saying that Jon Favreau took a big Rankin/Bass book into a meeting, and they asked if he was talking about my book. I said, “Yeah, that is my book.”
Rick and I talked about an interesting thread that runs through the Elf episode of The Movies That Made Us. The filmmakers continued to run into legal issues over using the likenesses of characters from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Check out the documentary on Netflix, and be sure to take a look at recent publications where Rick further explains ownership and rights issues. He talks about some new articles in a video here.
Allison: In your book, I was tickled when I read that in the 90s (the first edition) you mentioned a line about something making a comeback with Baby Boom nostalgia, and the same thing is happening with people of my generation with 90s nostalgia…
Rick: The funny thing is, I didn’t grow up in the 60s; all of that stuff was in reruns in the 70s and beyond. All my collection and everything I do seems to be based around the 60s because they were the most creative during that period. They had Bewitched, The Munsters, Batman…In the 60s, Rudolph and all the great Rankin/Bass stuff came out, into the early 70s. I think it was the fact, and I talk about this in my presentations, back then, that the people working on these things had 10, 20, 30 years of experience. They were masters. When Arthur hired Maury Laws and Jack Davis and Paul Coker, they were working on things like Mad Magazine and all that stuff.
Allison: I think I want to jump to distribution a bit. I grew up with Santa, Rudolph, and Frosty on Family Home Entertainment tapes, and I very vividly remember everything, down to the commercials. I noticed in the book, it seems like Golden Books [owned some of the characters]. With home video and then with cable and broadcast, I’m super interested in how it all gets passed around. I was stunned to see that the specials were on the Disney Channel in the 90s. I’m very curious as to how the “25 Days of Christmas” got ahold of it all.
Rick: Well, I know Family Home Entertainment was still part of Broadway Classics, and eventually it went to Golden Books, but classic media started around that time, too…It was all small potatoes back then. Yeah, it was big as far as network television shows that Rankin/Bass had, but they weren’t treating it like The Wizard of Oz or anything; they were just doing small video type releases with not much fanfare. After Golden Books, it went to DreamWorks, then DreamWorks sold the Rankin/Bass shows to Universal. That’s who has them now.
And Warner Brothers also has the later ones that are being shown on AMC and so forth. And you mentioned ABC Family, which is Freeform now. The guy who was doing the “25 Days of Christmas,” his friend visited me at a convention I was at in Maryland and said, “My friend was in charge of the ’25 Days of Christmas,’ then he moved to AMC and took the shows with him.”
Rick: He was like, “I’m good friends with Tim, and I’m going to see him.” So I told him, “Tell him to have me on so I can talk about how they made the shows in between showing them.” And nothing ever came of it…The only thing that did come from it was that now on AMC, they call it the Rankin/Bass Animagic Weekend.
That comes from my books, obviously. They didn’t even know it was called Animagic until I started talking about it and using the logo and everything. I think it’s good that they show them like that because it helps me, and it helps the fans get into it every year. It makes it a bigger thing. But I wish they would get into the story of Rankin/Bass.
Allison: Even growing up, by the time I was a little older, I noticed that ABC Family was showing fewer and fewer of the more obscure specials. I was like, “Where’s The First Christmas Snow? Where’s Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July?” That never made sense to me.
Rick: I used to own two of the puppets from The First Christmas. I sold them to two different people, but I can still borrow them back for appearances. One of the companies that I sold the Octavia puppet to, I think they have seven of the puppets, Screen Novelties.
They restored Santa and Rudolph, and I set that up. They also did the Spongebob Christmas specials, and the Halloween one. They’re very active in stop-motion. They like sharing their puppets with me. And they even did the Elf special.
Allison: Do they still own Santa and Rudolph?
Rick: No, Santa and Rudolph…they auctioned them off at the beginning of November for $368,000.
Allison: What about the Micky Rooney Santa?
Rick: That would have been in Japan. There’s one, I don’t know for sure which one it’s from, in Bermuda. They set up a little display. They have Mrs. C., and it’s in my book, too.
Allison: I’m always partial to the Mickey Rooney Santa.
Rick: On Fox Chicago, my friend who edited that and put it together, he told me 10, 20 years ago, he did a shoot with Mickey Rooney because he was in Sugar Babies or something. He brought a laser disc of Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town for him to sign. He told me Mickey Rooney said, “I did this for the money, but I’m glad I did it because this is the one most people talk about and remember me from.”
Rick mentions throughout his writing that Rankin and Bass liked to offer different looks for some of their characters. Santa Claus is a great example. He is cel-animated in some of the films, but he’s also different in various stop-motion productions, as seen below. The expensive Santa to the left, from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, was voiced by Stan Francis. The middle Santa was famously voiced by Mickey Rooney in Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, The Year Without a Santa Claus, and Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July. The last Santa doesn’t say much in Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey, but he is voiced by veteran Rankin/Bass voice actor Paul Frees.
There has been talk of a Rankin/Bass documentary for several years, and Rick is on board, but such a project comes down to the funding.
Rick: So, it comes down to not only a desire to do it, but you have to have the financing. And the only two documentaries that are worth anything so far are for The Year Without a Santa Claus–I got everybody together for that: Arthur, Paul Coker, Don Duga–and the one on Mad Monster Party that’s on YouTube in two parts. But we got Alan Swift before he passed away, the voice actor, and just key personnel.
So, I’d like to do it, and I could do it right. I just have to have somebody that has the financing and can do it. And maybe it’ll take one of the networks, like AMC, someone to say “Hey, we should put on a documentary with this stuff.” CBS, when they show Rudolph from 7-8, if they put a half hour more onto it, they’d still get high ratings. But you know, there’s a financing part to it…
When I asked Rick for some advice from one historian to another, here’s a bit of what he had to say:
Rick: Well, you know, being the Rankin/Bass historian, it isn’t the only thing that I love and am passionate about. As a matter of fact, I’m a big Hanna-Barbera fan. I met Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera and the staff that they had left early on in their offices. So I had that going. I’m also a big Disney fan, of the classic Disney. You mentioned you grew up on the Disney Channel. The Disney Channel was wonderful way back then. They were showing all the old cartoons, all the old television shows…The funny thing is, [Michael] Eisner was friends with Arthur.
He was in charge of ABC Saturday mornings when Arthur and Jules did the Jackson 5 show and The Osmonds and all the shows. They became good friends with Eisner. In fact, Arthur had a meeting with him to do The King and I, after my book came out. He probably walked into Eisner’s office, gave him a copy of my book, and just shot the breeze with him about old times. Nothing came of it. [Eisner] had no interest in doing The King and I with Arthur.
This history is important, but the modern world is going away from it…I think it’s important when you’re researching and you’re doing the history, you need to preserve it as it was and not try to make it for the modern-day audiences [like a CGI Rudolph!]…
Arthur trusted me, and I haven’t done anything that he wouldn’t be proud of.
I’d like to thank Rick Goldschmidt for sharing his love for Rankin/Bass and for excellently preserving its history. Visit miserbros.com for more from Rick, and have a merry Christmas!