Arthur Rankin Jr., the producer, director, and part-namesake of Rankin/Bass Productions, the TV/film company behind so many holiday and family favorites, including "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer," passed away Jan. 30, it was reported this week. He was 89.
"We are still watching Rankin/Bass films because of the heart and warmth in them," said Rick Goldschmidt, author of "The Enchanted World of Rankin/Bass" and two other books about the company's productions.
Here's a look back at how Rankin's work with partner Jules Bass influenced pop-culture — and our lives:
1. TV became a regular guest at family Christmas gatherings. For some people, it's not the holidays until "Rudolph" is played. Or "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town." Or "The Year Without a Santa Claus." Or "Frosty the Snowman." Or even "Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey." Rankin/Bass didn't invent the Christmas special, but beginning with "Rudolph," which debuted in 1964 (a year ahead of "A Charlie Brown Christmas") and turns 50 this December, it made the Christmas special an integral part of the season.
2. Stop-motion animation gave starts to Tim Burton and more. Just as Rankin/Bass didn't create the Christmas special, it didn't invent stop-motion. It did, however, find a special way into animation fans' hearts with doll-like figures that walked and talked (and danced and sang) courtesy of its so-called Animagic technique. The look, on display in "Rudolph" and other Rankin/Bass productions, can be seen in Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas." And Burton's "Corpse Bride." And Burton's "Frankenweenie," featuring Herr Meisterburger, , à la Burgermeister Meisterburger from "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town." Goldschmidt says it's not just Burton who has been influenced-and it's not just the Rankin/Bass holiday specials that made impressions. "In Hollywood in general, most of the animators talk about 'Mad Monster Party?,'" he said, referencing the 1967 Rankin/Bass big-screen monster mashup comedy.
Watch a clip from "Frankenweenie":
3. The songs. The songs. The songs. While the defining Rankin/Bass holiday specials were based on established hit tunes like "Rudolph," the shows introduced plenty of original memorable numbers, including some that have nothing to do with Christmas, from "Put One Foot in Front of the Other" (from "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town") to the eminently catchy "Snow Miser" and "Heat Miser" (both from "The Year Without a Santa Claus").
4. The voices. The voices. The voices. Today, it's standard for a brand-name actor to go behind the mic for an animation project. In the early 1960s, when Rankin/Bass started rolling, it was less so. "Back then what you had was a lot of voice actors imitating a lot of the classic actors," Goldschmidt said, "and Arthur, if he could, would get those name actors." And so Boris Karloff did Karloff doing Frankenstein in "Mad Monster Party?"; Vincent Price was the sinister Vincent Price character in "Here Comes Peter Cottontail"; and Burl Ives, Fred Astaire and Jimmy Durante appeared (more or less) as the animated versions of themselves in "Rudolph," "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" and "Frosty," respectively. (Astaire also lent his voice and caricature to the more seldom rerun "The Easter Bunny Is Comin' to Town.") Other notable actors in the Rankin/Bass stable included Mickey Rooney, Andy Griffith and Angela Lansbury.
5. The kaiju connection. In addition to its stop-motion classics, Rankin/Bass produced a handful of live-action feature films, including "King Kong Escapes." The joint production with Godzilla's Toho Studios saw the towering gorilla battle a giant robot version of himself, Mechani-Kong, arguably a forerunner of the mechanical behemoth Godzilla that later battled in "Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla."
6. "The Hobbit." For audiences of a certain age, it is Rankin/Bass's 1977 animated musical tale of the same name that was the gateway to the world of J.R.R. Tolkien. (A followup, "The Return of the King," premiered in 1980.) Some will — and have — argued that 77-minute, made-for-TV "Hobbit" is better than Oscar-winner Peter Jackson's big-screen versions. In any case, the Rankin/Bass film proved Tolkien could translate from the page to the screen.
7. And last but not least: "The Island of Misfit Toys." If you feel out of place at work, or if your workplace feels out of step with you, then thanks to "Rudolph" and its subplot about how mean Santa deals with toy imperfection, you know exactly how to describe your plight. You are marooned on the Island of You-Know-What. Cue the mournful song.