Back when I was a kid, there were T.V. specials and movies our family waited for every year to come on during the holiday season. Like millions of others, we watched this, "Rudolph", "The Grinch" and other holiday specials every year. I was only seven when this was first shown, so I must have seen the original broadcast. For some reason, I thought it was older than that, so its original airdate comes as a total delightful surprise to me.
If somebody could put together a stage version of this, I would definitely go to see it, because this has "musical theater" written all over it. The songs by Maury Laws and Jules Bass are all quite memorable and have Broadway influence written all over it. The character of Jessica (Robie Lester), the small town school teacher, reminds me totally of Marion Paroo, the librarian from "The Music Man", while Mickey Rooney's Kris Kringle is definitely a variation of Harold Hill. The comical villain, Burgermeister Meisterburger, is so delightfully over the top, and I could definitely see the actor in that part stealing every scene they are in. Paul Frees is very funny, especially when he all of a sudden reverts to childhood glee when he is given a yo-yo even though taking a present breaks his own stupid law.
As narrator, Fred Astaire is outstanding, the puppet made up to look exactly like him. He even comes into the story a bit. At over 70, Astaire still had "it", and even six years later, the opportunity to see him dance on film one more time in "That's Entertainent II" was a joy to behold. Joan Gardner provides the voice of wisdom as the portly and lovable Tantee Kringle who adopts Kris, and she is definitely the prototype for what we think Mrs. Klaus should look like. It's no surprise that when Jessica ages, she looks exactly like Tantee.
Character veteran Keenan Wynn also gets to resemble himself here, providing the voice of the Winter Warlock. Just imagine two Broadway hoofers stealing the scene with "Put One Foot in Front of the Other". Audiences would be on their feet even before the number was over! They might consider altering the lyrics of "If You Sit on my Lap Today" which even in context of the cartoon seems a bit perverse. "My World is Beginning Today", Jessica's solo, is just as gorgeous as any of Marion's songs in "The Music Man", and could serve a Broadway leading lady very well if they cast it right. Calling Kelli O'Hara!
However, the most touching moment is Astaire's solo, "What Better Way to Tell You" where he explains the real meaning of Christmas which isn't presents, cookies, trees or even Santa Claus himself. The fact that Santa and the baby Jesus can be utilized in the same story is really the type of Christmas I grew up with, not the hyped-up shopping frenzy that causes injuries on "black Friday" and misrepresents why the holiday was put on the calendar in the first place. So my Christmas wish is that some Broadway producer opens their eyes to what could really express the holiday spirit while making themselves some money at the same time.
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