One half of the celebrated animation production company Rankin/Bass, Arthur Rankin, Jr. produced and directed some of the longest-running, universally adored holiday animated specials, including "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (NBC, 1964) and "Frosty the Snowman" (CBS, 1969), as well as "The Hobbit" (NBC, 1977) and weekly series like "ThunderCats" (syndicated, 1985-89). Rankin/Bass's stop-motion "Animagic" process imbued their efforts with a level of wonder and technical finesse that was underscored by the charm and genuine warmth of their stories, which often surpassed the fabricated emotions of bigger-budgeted studio and network efforts. Rankin/Bass produced an enormous array of animated projects between 1964 and 1987, as well as several live-action features and TV films, though none of these were held in the same regard as their holiday specials, which became an essential part of the season itself through yearly screenings, generation after generation. Arthur Rankin, Jr.'s best work with Jules Bass was not unlike the holiday itself: magical, moving and altogether memorable.
Born July 19, 1924 in New York City, Arthur Gardner Rankin, Jr. came from a show business family. His father was prolific actor Arthur Rankin, whose career spanned the silent era to the early 1940s, while his mother, Marian Mansfield, enjoyed several bit roles in features during the 1930s. His extended family was also populated by performers, including grandfather Harry Davenport who co-founded Actors Equity and appeared in "Gone With the Wind" (1939) among many other films, while an aunt, Doris Rankin, was married to Lionel Barrymore. After serving as an ensign in the Navy during World War II, Arthur Rankin, Jr., found his career behind the camera, working initially for RKO Radio Pictures' international division before joining the newly formed ABC television network as a graphic designer in 1948. He quickly moved up to art director on early ABC anthology series like "Tales of Tomorrow" (1951-53), among other series, earning several awards for art direction along the way. Rankin left the network in 1952 to launch his own graphic design company that counted among its clients the A&P supermarket chain, which he had landed through the Gardner advertising company. He soon befriended a Gardner employee named Jules Bass, who delivered materials from the company to his studio. Together, they launched their own production company, Videocraft International, which began producing animated series and specials in 1960, beginning with "The New Adventures of Pinocchio" (syndicated, 1960-61). The children's program was highlighted by a stop-motion animation process called Animagic, though Videocraft would also produce traditional cel animation series like "Tales of the Wizard of Oz" (syndicated, 1960-61).
Rankin/Bass would earn its breakout project with "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (1964), a one-hour special for NBC and its sponsor/owner, General Electric. The stop-motion project, which featured the voice of Oscar winner Burl Ives as a grandfatherly snowman and original songs by Johnny Marks, featured all the hallmarks that would come to define Rankin/Bass holiday specials in subsequent years: high-profile voiceover actors, an abundant score, exceptional animation and, most importantly, a genuine warmth to their stories. The success of "Rudolph," which would air annually during the holiday season for the next four decades, led to a slew of animated projects for Rankin/Bass. They produced numerous weekly cartoons, including "The Beatles" (ABC, 1965-66), a broadly comic take on the Fab Four, and "The King Kong Show" (ABC, 1966-69), a joint effort between Rankin/Bass and Japan's Toei Animation, as well as feature-length animated films like "Willy McBean and his Magic Machine" (1965) and "The Daydreamer" (1966), which featured an all-star vocal cast that included Tallulah Bankhead, Boris Karloff and Ray Bolger.
But their best-known and best-loved work remained their holiday specials, which soon included "Frosty the Snowman" (1969), with Jimmy Durante; "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" (ABC, 1970), with Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney and Keenan Wynn; and "The Year without a Santa Claus" (ABC, 1974), with Rooney, Oscar winner Shirley Booth and the voices of George S. Irving and Dick Shawn as the brawling Heat Miser and Snow Miser, sons of Mother Nature and two of Rankin/Bass' most enduring original creations. For these and countless other productions, Rankin and Bass frequently split directing and producing credits, though Rankin also wrote "Willy McBean," "The Daydreamer" and conceived the original story for "Mad Monster Party" (1967), a feature animation project with the voice of Boris Karloff and Phyllis Diller that later became a cult favorite among Generation X viewers.
Rankin/Bass continued to produce yearly holiday specials into the mid-1980s, though with diminishing returns. They began diversifying their output in the 1970s, balancing the Christmas projects with weekly series based on "The Jackson 5ive" (ABC, 1971-74) and "The Osmonds" (ABC, 1972) while also producing occasional live-action features for television, including "The Last Dinosaur" (ABC, 1977) and "The Bermuda Depths" (ABC, 1978), which featured special effects by Tsuburaya Productions, the company that had produced the suitmation creatures for Toho's Godzilla franchise. More successful was their Peabody Award-winning attempt to adapt J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" (1977), which featured John Huston, Richard Boone, Otto Preminger and Cyril Ritchard among its voice cast, and was soon followed by "The Return of the King" (ABC, 1980), a streamlined adaptation of the third book in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy. Efforts to capture the success of these projects, including the theatrically released "Last Unicorn" (1982) and "The Flight of Dragons" (ABC, 1986), were largely ignored, though Rankin/Bass would enjoy late-inning popularity with the weekly animated series "ThunderCats."
By 1987, the company shut down its production arm and sold off its library, which passed through several corporate hands, including Lorne Michaels' Broadway Video, whose children's division became Golden Books Family Entertainment and later Classic Media; Studio Canal; DreamWorks Animation, which eventually retained ownership of the pre-1974 titles; and Warner Bros. Television, which took possession of projects made between 1974 and 1987. Rankin revived the company in 1999, though without Bass, who had retired to become a children's author. Former Morgan Creek Entertainment writer-producer Peter Bakalian served as his partner on a feature-length animated version of "The King and I," though the end result was a dismal failure at the box office. Two years later, the company's final Christmas special was "Santa Baby" (Fox, 2001), their first effort to prominently feature African-American characters, which were voiced by Gregory Hines, Eartha Kitt and Patti LaBelle, among others. Rankin and Bass dissolved their partnership shortly thereafter, but their most popular efforts remained an indelible part of holiday traditions through yearly screenings during the holidays. Rankin remained a regular presence on DVD releases of the company's work while occasionally producing holiday-themed plays in Bermuda, where he maintained a second home. Arthur Rankin Jr. died at his Bermuda home on January 30, 2014, at the age of 89.
By Paul Gaita