Rankin/Bass’ Arthur Rankin Jr. chats about his timeless Christmas specials

Arthur Rankin, Jr. is part of the duo team Rankin/Bass. He is a legend and does not need any introduction. Rankin/Bass created the timeless holiday specials “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, “Frosty the Snowman”, “The Year Without Santa Claus” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, just to name a few. Media Mikes had a once in a lifetime chance to chat with Arthur about his work and how it has and will continue to entertain generation after generation. This interview originally was posted March 2012 but I wanted to revisit this post for the holiday season!

Mike Gencarelli: Let’s start with “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Why do you think this special has become timeless after almost 50 years?
Arthur Rankin, Jr.: I really don’t have an answer to that. I think because it was the first special of its kind…I think that, in looking for something to watch for Christmas, parents put their children in front of the television. And the word went out that this was a nice show, etc., etc, etc. and so next year it had a bigger audience. And as the audience grew, so did the children that watched it. They grew up to become mothers. And they grew up to become grandmothers! And they also put their children and grandchildren in front of the television set. That’s been going on for all of these years. It’s a pattern. That’s why Disney keeps re-releasing it’s old pictures. Because there’s an audience. The theatre may have a child whose having his first experience with the film while his grandmother is having her fourth or fifth experience with it. And that’s what our audience consists of. It’s a memory of life. To many people, “Rudolph” means Christmas.

MG: Why did you choose to work with stop motion animation, which you refer to as “animagic,” as opposed to conventional animation?
AR: A trade delegation had come to America from Japan. There was one gentleman who represented the steel industry…another who was in textiles. And a third who represented their motion picture industry. The motion picture representative had a studio he wanted to promote. He asked a friend of his in Washington D.C. if he could be introduced to one of America’s foremost animators. And by mistake he was led to me (laughs). We got along very well. He had been born in the U.S. and after he graduated college he went back to Japan. We became close friends. He invited me to come over, look at his studios, and tell him what I thought. I did. I went over, toured the studios and saw an example of stop motion, which hadn’t been done in a long time and not in any great depth. I was very taken by it…I thought it was a new approach. Of course I got to re-design it but I used the technique. We started out making some short films and they turned out very well. I made a series that I syndicated about Pinocchio. And then Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer lit up his nose. I lived in Greenwich Village at the time and my neighbor down the block (Johnny Marks) had actually written the song. I called him up and told him that there was a character there that would make a nice Christmas show. He was reluctant to do it at the time – do you know what ASCAP is? (NOTE: ASCAP is the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. It is through this group that songwriters earn their royalties). “Rudolph” was a very successful song at Christmas time and he was afraid to jeopardize that income by doing anything with the song. I finally convinced him that the show would promote the song more. I took my idea to General Electric and they sponsored it. They put it on NBC for the first time in a spot they had used for “The College Bowl” – Sunday afternoon at 4:00. (NOTE: “The General Electric College Bowl” could best be described as the collegiate version of “Jeopardy.” It ran on NBC from 1959-1970). Now normally no one is watching television on Sunday afternoon at 4:00 but they were that day…”Rudolph” earned the highest rating of the week. And the rest is, “let’s have some more of those!”

MG: Your next Christmas project was “Frosty the Snowman,” which took a more traditional animation route. Why not stop motion?
AR: Because the subject lent itself better to the medium. Besides, by then I had several other films in production at my studio in Japan. I had no more room! We were into doing a feature in stop motion.

MG: You created so many great specials over the years. One of my favorites is “The Year without a Santa Claus.” Can you share any fun stories from that production?
AR: There’s a man who wrote a book about the motion picture industry. He said, “Remember one thing…nobody knows anything!” (NOTE: The book Mr. Rankin is referring to is “Adventures in the Screen Trade,” written by Academy Award winning screenwriter William Goldman. It is a must read for anyone curious about the inner workings of Hollywood). And it’s true. You never know when you’re going to have a hit. There was a time when you could put Barbra Streisand up against a curtain and have her sing and you’d have to lock the doors because she had so many fans. And then time goes on. It is true. In this business you take your best shot. That’s what I did. I rounded up all of the Christmas songs I thought could be made into a Christmas show…we acquired the rights to almost all of the ones that I wanted.

MG: In today’s world of television ratings are everything. Were these specials successful? Did any disappoint?
AR: All of them were successful in their original run. That’s why they’re still on the air today. Warner Brothers distributes them for me. All during the Christmas season they run my shows. And they pay for that (laughs). A penny here…a penny there.

MG: What has happened to the puppets, sets and props used in these productions?
AR: Well what happened is that after awhile those things wear out. They have wire armature inside…they have faces made out of plastic that has been carved. The clothes were made by little ladies but, just like people that work too hard, they fall apart. Of course we always had a couple of standbys waiting. I have here in my home Rudolph pulling Frosty on a sleigh.

MG: Besides time constraints, what was one of the most difficult aspects of creating these specials?
AR: When we did “Year Without a Santa Claus” we had to invent new characters. We had these two brothers, Heat Miser and Cold Miser. They just jumped off the screen and became cult figures. And we just came up with them one afternoon while designing the picture…”let’s do this…Mother Nature has two sons and they don’t get along…one’s in charge of heat…OK, put that in.” (laughs)

MG: How did creating your feature film, “Mad Monster Party,” compare versus working on the television specials?
AR: First off, it was the first time it had ever been done in a long time. Not since Abbot and Costello met Frankenstein. And I thought I would be able to take so many more liberties with the stop motion process.
I concocted the idea and then got a couple of boys from “Mad” magazine (Harvey Kurtzman, who created the magazine, and Len Korobkin) to write it with me.

MG: “Mad Monster Party” was showcased in Rick Goldschmidt’s recent book “The Enchanted World of Rankin/Bass.” How did you come to work with him?
AR: He called me one day. He had gotten an introduction from some one. And he was very knowledgeable. I usually don’t encourage people to do these things. First off, I can’t figure out why the hell they’re so interested. (laughs) But Rick had an awful lot of details. He sent me an outline of what the book would be like. He lives outside Chicago and I flew up to meet him. One of the rooms in his house is like a shrine. He had everything…things I had thrown out years ago. Old storyboards….he still gives me things he’s found that I had forgotten ever existed. He was very enthusiastic and wanted to do the book. So I told him “o.k.” but told him not to do the story of Arthur and Jules (Bass). You do stories on the pictures (the various specials/films). You have photos to go along with them and you’ve got a portfolio. He did that and it worked. It’s a great record of our work over the years.

MG: Have you ever considered writing your own memoirs?
AR: I’ve considered it because it’s been suggested before. But if I did it I’d want it to be straight…a lot of my old friends are still alive and what I might say about them wouldn’t be…(laughs)

MG: I read that you attempted to re-create “Mad Monster Party” using computer generated effects. What ever happened to that?
AR: We did. We made a test and it looked good. I went around Hollywood to the studios to see if they wanted to do it. Two of the studios said yes. But I was given to secondary people to deal with and I had to leave. It was no good. A studio will take your work away from you and do it themselves. They’ll rewrite. When I acquired the rights to “The King and I,” that was a very difficult property to acquire. I had to convince the families of (Richard) Rogers and (Oscar) Hammerstein that I knew what I was talking about. And I did. I wrote a script and they liked it. I was going to make that picture with my own investment with a co-partner in Japan. We were all set to do it. Then Warner Brothers calls up. They say “you don’t have to pay for it…we’ll pay you to do it for us.” “For us” meant here comes fourteen people that think they can do it better then I do. I’m not very proud of that picture. They changed a lot of the script and I was embarrassed for the Rogers and Hammerstein estate. (NOTE: The 1999 film, which was co-produced by Mr. Rankin’s production company, was both a financial and critical failure. The estates of Rogers and Hammerstein have since refused to allow any of their shows to become animated features).

MG: This coming year there are no less than three stop motion films being released, including Tim Burton’s “Frankenweenie.” Do you think this process will continue to inspire?
AR: You’d think there were a lot of people that could do stop motion but they just don’t exist. This is the tech age. Computer animation…those with a technical background find it much faster. Stop motion animation is a devilish job. I’ll tell you how we worked. We would have a figure…or a group of figures…on a stage in miniature. Each figure had a human person assigned to it. And the way you get it to work…the camera clicks off one frame…the human person goes up and changes the figure ever so slightly…microscopically. The camera clicks off another frame. The human person goes over and changes it again. If a character is lifting a glass to his lips, you may have as many as 250 “motions.” The human person didn’t have anything on a computer. He knew in his mind what he had to do. Just like as if he was an actor. And we’d have to finish the scene in one day. There was no taking a break or going home for dinner and coming back the next day. We would try to start a scene as early in the morning as possible because we knew we could be working late into the evening…all night if necessary if the scene wasn’t finished.

MG: Have you ever considered returning to the business to produce or direct again?
AR: Not this Christmas, but next, I’m going to do a play in Bermuda. Everyone asks me why I’m doing it in Bermuda. We have a wonderful theater here…the Town Hall Theater. It seats around 700 people. Much bigger then many of the off-Broadway theaters with great acoustics. And if I say I want to do a Christmas play they’ll throw open the doors for me. It’s wonderful to have such cooperation. And anybody who works on the play, both on and back stage, works for nothing. All box office proceeds go to whatever charity I choose. Everybody jumps in. It’s what keeps me kicking my heels!

MG: This interview wouldn’t be complete without asking if you have a favorite project and, if so, why?
AR: I don’t have a favorite. They’re all my children. I don’t want to sound self-serving but they have remained in the public’s hearts for decades. It’s like a great painting by van Gogh or Reubens. There work is still in the public eye…the public has recognized their work for centuries. Maybe the measure of success is longevity. Things that last must be better then things that don’t!


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DVD Review “The Flintstones: Prime-Time Specials Collection – Volume 1”

Directed by: William Hanna, Joseph Barbera
Voices of: Alan Reed, Jean Vander Pyl, Mel Blanc, Bea Benaderet, Gerry Johnson, Don Messick, John Stephenson
Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 99 minutes

Our Score: 3.5 out of 5 stars

“The Flintstones” are a timeless cartoon that can never be replaced. Warner Archive is releasing a pair of classic Flintstones specials on DVD for the first time. “The Flintstones Prime-Time Specials Collection – Volume 1” includes the special “The Flintstones Meet Rockula and Frankenstone” and “The Flintstones Little Big League”. These classic Hanna-Barbera specials are perfect for cartoon fans of all ages. I would think that this being being released now to steal some spotlight from Halloween. If you are a fan of the series (I mean who isn’t) then this is a great addition to your collection.

“The Flintstones Meet Rockula” originally aired during Halloween of 1979 and “The Flintstones Little Big League” originally aired April of 1978. These are classics have been LONG out of print before Warner Archive released these as part of their Hanna–Barbera Classics Collection. These episodes are newly remastered and looks sharp for specials that are well over 30 years old. They are presented in 4 X 3 FULL FRAME with their original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. Being a fan of this show since I was a kid, this release is a real treat to get to own these fantastic specials.  Time for Volume 2! Bring it on!

Synopsis: Following a spate of Saturday morning spin-offs, America’s favorite Stone Age family returned to network prime-time with a full slate of hysterical pre-historical specials – no quitting time for Fred! In The Flintstones Meet Rockula and Frankenstone, the Flintstones and the Rubbles travel to fear-fraught Rockysylvania thanks to a big game show win. Fred and Barney soon stumble upon – and awaken – the legendary Frankenstone Monster, who promptly revives his vampiric master, Rockula. When Rockula falls head over batwings for Wilma, will Fred end up having an undead-old time? Flintstones Little Big League sees Fred and Barney facing off as opposing Little League coaches while Bamm-Bamm and Pebbles duel across the diamond. Swept up by competitiveness and paternal pride, their friendship ends up in the dug-out doghouse. Meanwhile, a cop, a judge and Mr. Slate are all putting pressure on Fred to win at all costs – what’s a cavedad to do?

Interview with .38 Special’s Don Barnes

Don Barnes is one of the founding members of the Southern rock band .38 Special.  He provides vocals and guitar for the band and is responsible for many of the group’s biggest hits, including “Rockin’ into the Night”, “Hold On Loosely” and  “Caught Up in You.  .38 Special is tours constantly and currently took out some time to chat with Media Mikes about his music and how he keeps touring fresh over the years.

Mike Gencarelli: So where are you currently touring this week?
Don Barnes: We are currently appearing at Epcot’s Food and Fine Festival concert series on 10-3-11 through 10-5-11.  It is a very exciting venue.

MG: Let’s talk about the many generations of fans that you have. How can you reflect that you not only have one generation of fans but many?
DB: Well I think it is really great because a lot of the fans were fans back in the 80’s and they played our music. We have a lot of cross sections of ages that come to our show and we like to see that. We are all big cult kid oriented kids…I mean we’re basically kids our selves. We like to crank the guitar up and be 19 years old again. People come out and it’s always a good cross-section. It’s everything you want to hear from a band. It’s just your high energy, bombastic presentation. We have people singing along and it’s a real surreal thing for us. Donny and I remember sitting at the kitchen table and scratching out lyrics and trying to come up with just the right thing to say, and then to see ten thousand people singing along. It’s an experience that not a lot of people get to have.

MG: You guys tour a lot all year. What do you guy’s do to keep that fresh and original for you?
DB: We do a hundred cities a year, every year. We’ve been doing that the past 25 years or so. We try to get our quota in, but we change the set up a bit. We move things around, we put new songs in and things. But we realized over the years that somebody that bought the album, the old vintage antique album and held on to it, that there are other songs there that may not have been top charting songs but they remember them because from when they play that album. We try to put things in that we like that are kind of in your face attitude. We’ve become kind of the premier live act because people know it’s a successful event because we bring the party to the people all the time. It’s really about the celebration of the brotherhood of us neighborhood guys. We started out a long time ago like anybody, practicing in the garage and you get the cops called on you for being too loud. But you know it’s a celebration and it’s carried us into the future. We appreciate everybody making us a part of their lives all these years. We try to bring those  songs out and we see the reaction immediately. We see high fives out there we see people singing along that have tears in their eyes because it reminds them of some time in their lives for nostalgic reasons or whatever. It really makes us play those  songs with just as much passion and commitment that was there the first time that we recorded them. It’s always been 110% from us and it’s kind of unspoken thing from us that we don’t slack up we stack up. It’s a team effort. We look at it as a real team thing. We go out there to win every night and I think that’s what has contributed to the longevity of the group.

MG: I’ve seen you all live a few times and you always have so much energy it’s unbelievable.
DB:  I appreciate that, we all played our dues, we all starved together. We all came from Jacksonville. All the groups, from Lynyrd Skynyrd to The Allman Brothers, to Molly Hatchet. Everybody came from Jacksonville and wonders if it’s in the water or something. Even The Outlaws are right down the road. It really was as young kids…young boys, we were playing in sailors clubs at 15 years old. We made $150 a week and that was pretty good for 15 years old. The fundamentals we learned early on about structures of songs and the craft of song writing because you learned all the popular songs back then. You start sensing the elements about what makes it popular to get it on the radio. You then decide how you will write your own songs and you starve for 10 years [laughs]. If it was easy everybody would be doing it.

MG: You have such a great library of songs, what do you do to choose your set list for each show?
DB: We see the reaction from songs we try songs out, we try to line them up. We look at it like a graph. It starts off with a big opening and the graph goes up and up and up and in the middle you give a little relief like Donnie does a tribute to his brother Ronnie from Lynyrd Skynyrd. You know Ronnie was killed in a plane crash in ’77 so we do a song called “Rebel to Rebel” that relaxes the people with the emotions and nature of the song. Then we go on climbing and climbing and we end with a big high note and everybody is exhausted along with us. It’s everything you want to hear through the history of the band. We put together a medley of secondary songs from movies. A lot of soundtracks and things. We want to make sure people hear their favorite song. Even “Back to Paradise” from “Revenge of the Nerds’ movies. We make sure we get them all in there.

MG: You’ve toured with thousands of people, like Lynyrd Skynyrd, REO Speedwagon, Hank Williams; can you share any crazy tour stories?
DB: We opened for Kiss back in the 70’s and they had a radio contest and this was back when nobody had heard about us before. Kiss was in their big wave of success, they grossed something like four million dollars that year or something. Every city had Kiss face contests and we would play and just for the first hundred rows we would see nothing but people with grease paint on their faces and it was really like “The Twilight Zone” to us.

MG: How did you all become involved with CMT’s “Road Pranks”?
DB: They just called us up and said they wanted to do a show about what people  do on their day off. That was the whole ruse was to include our crew. We talked about the ruse was they wanted to come film what bands does on their day off. In reality it was going to be that we were going to set them up and play a trick on them. The fake show was going to be called “Down Time” and I told all the crew guys so we would see all the hobbies that they have. Of course all the crew guys are all gear heads, rocket enthusiasts and tech heads with miniature rockets and stuff. We set them up bad [laughs]. In the mean time we are planning on having the fire department, Home Land Security, the cops are going to come raining down on us for using rockets and stuff.  Of course we were all in on the joke but we had to act like we were in trouble too. It worked out pretty good. Those cops were pretty good. Those cops even had me scared a little bit! When we finally revealed it to them they weren’t very happy about all that. They didn’t speak to us for a day or two there. They didn’t know how to take it. They have sworn revenge on us though that they will get us back.

MG: Tell us about the new album, Live In Texas, recently released on August 31st, 2011.
DB: We are putting together a collection of songs through several cities from Texas and calling it “Live From Texas: 36 Special”. We were able to use a lot of advances in technology, we were able to bring our own equipment and record. At first we were just going to record it and have them at the merchandise table at the shows so the fans could sort of bring the party home with them, but when we listened back we realized this was some killer stuff, it came out a lot better than we thought it was. We decided to get them packaged up and distributed. A lot of pictures and everything. The main thing with utilizing the technology though is that a listener could put on headphones on and it literally feels like you’re sitting right in the middle of the crowd and right in front of the band. That’s not something that a lot of live acts can do. It’s almost like surround sound. You can just place the crowd behind you and around you and of course the sound of the band is all over you. It’s just the celebration of all that and it’s just rockin’. We’re real happy with the way it came out. It is available now on Amazon.com and iTunes and in stores. “Live From Texas: 38 Special”.

MG: I hear that you are in pre-production for a new studio album, is that true?
DB: Yeah. I mean we have several projects going right now. Of course newly written songs, big rock stuff, you know, we call it Muscle and Melody. We put the Muscle of the Guitars and the strength of that in your face and good melody and story over the top. We have that going and that should be released next year. We also have an acoustic sort of version of some of the classic songs that we were able to take poetic license to change the keys and rearrange things, like the song If I’d Been the One became a really beautiful ballad. We didn’t want to take it where it was an unplugged series where bands just sat on a stools and basically played the songs the same they do electrically because that is kind of boring to us. So like “Caught Up In You”, has a beat too it and a bit of reggae. Also we are entertaining some new movie projects…soundtracks and things.

MG: What is your process when you create new songs? Where do you draw your inspiration from for certain projects?
DB: Songwriters tend to always be in search of a great premise, a good title, anything that sort of sparks the  original germ of the idea. Like Caught Up In You; years ago I was dating this girl and I said You know I can’t every get any work done, I’m just so caught up in you all the time. It was like  a lightbulb went on, like that was a great positive thing. A happy angle to it. There are other songs that have a darker side but A Whole Lot of Loosely was about a marriage that I’d gone through. It was going down hill and I thought “Why Can’t people Celebrate their differences and not try and control each other”. So out of a negative message came a positive piece of advice. We try to put the truth in our songs so people can relate to their own lives. It’s kind of undeniable thing when you use the truth.  It’s one thing to say “Ooo baby I need you, I miss you.” but that’s kind of made up, contrived song, and people sense that. If there is a real story there, I can just tell you to keep the antenna up there, from personal experiences, there is just a wealth of information there. If you can scratch down a title you can come back to it later. As far as the musical side of it, that all comes from just noodling around on a guitar or piano or something with a little micro cassette player and I can take just ten seconds of something and then move on to something else Then when you come back to it you almost can’t remember that you’d played it so you listen to it more objectively from a different perspective and you think “Hey that’s not a bad idea, I can make a song out of that.” That all comes from experience, of learning how to noodle around and how to entertain yourself.