Time for sentimental, Holiday trivia again. And to offer some distraction from the pandemic. Only this time, on Black Friday, the networks slammed us with three classic Holiday specials at the same time: Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town, and of course, How The Grinch Stole Christmas. Plus, the Minions brought some of their new samples of Holiday havoc after The Grinch.
That reminds me, "A Charlie Brown Christmas" will not be broadcast over regular TV or cable this year. That may become another rant soon. As usual, the networks didn't waste any time trying to get viewers in a festive Holiday mood. I suppose it's good to introduce these shows to a new generation, especially with the strain and heartbreak of the lock-down. But for me, it was still too soon to watch these shows, with the obvious situation of the networks competing against each other for TV ratings and ad time. Looks like I'm in grumpy old man mode again.
Getting back to my rant, it struck me as I was flicking back 'n' forth between channels, I finally noticed there were two Rankin/Bass Christmas TV Specials up against each other; the stop motion "Santa" (1970) and traditional hand-drawn "Frosty" (1969). Even with the advantage of experience, I still fell under the rosy spell of the old Rankin/Bass universe. Charming, whimsical characters that bordered on the fantastic, even bizarre, especially the stop-mo Santa film. What was in their style that kept viewers glued to the screen after all these years?
Of course, the Secret Ingredient: artist Paul Coker, Jr.!
Coker was the artist and designer that gave the Rankin/Bass Specials that quirky, off balance, yet lovable look. According lambiek.net, Coker started out as an artist for the Hallmark greeting card company. He also found work cartooning for magazines such as Esquire and Good Housekeeping, and even Playboy. This work got him the notice of Mad Magazine where he developed his own characters and acidic movie parodies. From there, Coker was hired by Arthur Rankin Jr., which pretty much set the tone and style of their beloved Holiday specials through the 1970's.
Since their original broadcasts, the Rankin/Bass specials have become the targets of parodies both in tribute, and out of nastiness. The writer of the culturecache.com article completely overlooks Coker's influence when she mentions the designs and proportions of the Rankin/Bass characters. The nature of animation, plus the pressures of TV production do lead to artwork that looks off kilter, forgettable and many times, unappealing. Especially nowadays, the charm and daring of character designs like Coker's could be bulldozed under completely. Like many animation artists, Paul is modest, and works in relative obscurity.
But like benign ghosts from Christmases past, these old friends shake off the dust, and are brought down from the shelves. It's kind of the way distant relatives drop by, or the way old decorations are brought down from the attic. They may still bring us some magic, and maybe some comfort as we limp through probably one of the grimmest Holiday seasons since WWII. But when it comes to imagine and appeal, here's to Paul Coker, Jr.!