Column: Specials are about more than Christmas

This Don Duga painting, 'Memories of Frosty' has been on exhibit at the Dark Horse restaurant in Riverhead.
This Don Duga painting, ‘Memories of Frosty’ has been on exhibit at the Dark Horse restaurant.

Ever notice how nasty the adults are in Christmas specials?

Michael White, editor
Michael White

Maybe it’s been a while since you’ve curled up with a cup of hot chocolate and a stop-motion animated classic. If so, here are some reminders.

In one scene from 1964’s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” Rudolph objects to his father Donner’s insistence that he mask his glowing red nose with clay.

“It’s not very comfortable,” a muzzled Rudolph protests, nasally.

“There are more important things than comfort,” Donner responds, “Self-respect! Santa can’t object to you now.”

Alas, Rudolph’s red nose is inadvertently revealed later in the story, during reindeer practice. That’s when an appalled Coach Comet declares to the others, “From now on, gang, we won’t let Rudolph join in any reindeer games, right?” and tells Rudolph to “go home.”

Then there’s the Burgermeister Meisterburger of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” (1970). As the mayor of Sombertown, he issues a decree declaring all toys “illegal, immoral, unlawful AND anyone found with a toy in his possession will be placed under arrest and thrown in the dungeon.”

The dungeon? Sheesh. These were kids. Even the minister who banned dancing from that town in “Footloose” would curl his lip in disgust.

That brings us to the magician in 1969’s “Frosty the Snowman.”

“He was pretty bad,” admits animator Don Duga of Riverhead. “He was trying to get his hat back and was trying to kill Frosty.”

But Mr. Duga, who worked on all three of these holiday films for the legendary Rankin/Bass Productions, points out that there is something more to these domineering, autocratic and homicidal Christmas characters: their ability to change.

“If you notice, they are mean, but then they become soft,” Mr. Duga said. “In ‘Frosty,’ the magician was mean, but in the end Santa says, ‘You can’t have any presents,’ and he’s heartbroken. Then he breaks down and changes. With Burgermeister, it’s the same thing. He had said no one in the town could have toys and then here comes Santa Claus and he hands him a yo-yo. [Burgermeister] falls in love and becomes a soft, wonderful person.”

Even the adults in “Rudolph” eventually realized that “maybe they were a little hard” on Rudolph and his misfit friends, says the narrator.

If the characters seem a bit clumsy, Mr. Duga notes that writing for such animated specials was no easy task back then — even for the great ones like “Rudolph” writer Romeo Muller. (Consider the actual animation was done in Tokyo, with guys like Mr. Duga sketching out the scenes stateside.)

Dolly prays for Santa.
Dolly prays for Santa’s arrival in ‘Rudolph’s’ final scene, which was added after complaints from the public.

But there was a question Mr. Duga couldn’t answer for me.

One thing my parents, two brothers and I couldn’t figure out as we gathered each December to watch “Rudolph” in the 1980s was this: What was wrong with “Dolly,” the little doll that lived on the Island of Misfit Toys with other flawed playthings, like the cowboy that rode an ostrich?

Mr. Duga said he didn’t know the answer about Dolly, then gently reminded me that he wasn’t a writer on these projects.

Undeterred, I located Rankin/Bass historian Rick Goldschmidt, author of “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Making Of The Rankin/Bass Holiday Classic” and other books.

“There is nothing in the scripts about the misfit doll,” he informed me. He explained that Dolly suddenly found herself with more lines and screen time after the producers — reacting to public outcry after the special’s first airing — added a final scene that included Santa going back to the island to rescue the marooned toys. With the new scene, he said, “she became more significant.” Yet unlike with the other misfit toys, her “issue” remained unexplained.

Mr. Goldschmidt said he had once asked Arthur Rankin about Dolly. The producer responded that Dolly’s problems were psychological and explained that she “was cast off by her mistress and was clinically depressed and Prozac did not exist in those days.”

Basically, the girl was struggling with mental health issues and so she got sent away to an island.

Just when you thought the adults in charge couldn’t get any worse.

I understand that Arthur Rankin was joking but it’s true that this can be a nasty world. That’s why people like Mr. Duga and others at Rankin/Bass should be remembered and commended for what they first set out to do in 1960: bring a little joy and “animagic” to children’s lives. And maybe teach a lesson or two.

Perhaps the greatest lesson of these stories is that even adults can set bad examples and make mistakes.

But we try our best to forgive them — especially around Christmas.

Michael White is the editor of The Suffolk Times and Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at [email protected] or (631) 298-3200, ext. 152.