Frankie Kowalski takes a loving peek at the Christmas classic on the occasion of its 30th anniversary.
On December 18, 1966,38 million people tuned in to CBS-TV to witness the birth of what would become one of the most watched holiday specials in the history of American television--Dr.Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas. It was a show that was to become a vivid part of my TV watching childhood. I was troubled by the mean ol' Grinch who was trying to stop Christmas Day and felt sorry for his cute little dog, Max, who endured his cruelties. Yet, the Grinch taught me a valuable lesson, at an early age, that Christmas was not about the most presents I could get, but the amount of love I carry in my heart and about giving it to others.
And here we are 30 years later celebrating the Grinch's anniversary at a benefit to raise funds for the Motion Picture and Television Fund, the service organization designed to promote the well-being of the entertainment community. It was a natural choice for Chuck Jones, who has been an intimate supporter of the Fund since the 30s, through his good friend Roger Mayer, who is the Chairman of the Fund's Board of Trustees.
Old Friends Celebrating 30 Years
At the Four Seasons Hotel in Newport Beach, California, the evening's supporters cocktailed around a silent auction while soaking in an array of original artwork from the show. Patrons were then were welcomed to Whoville with the merriment of the Southern California Children's Chorus singing "Welcome Christmas" along with a festive feast and tribute to our old friend "The Grinch."
The event's attendance was a clear indication that to this day it is a classic favorite among many. Seeing dear friends gathered together reminiscing on how it all came about was the sparkle of the evening--Chuck Jones (director), Linda Jones, Roger Mayer (President, Turner Entertainment Company), June Foray (voice of Cindy Lou Who), Albert Hague (composer), Maurice Noble, Phil Roman (lead animators), and narrator Boris Karloff's daughter, Sara.
Animating the Book
Translating Dr. Seuss' book into animation was not a easy as it looks. With great tenacity and a little charm, director and co-producer, Chuck Jones, had finally convinced his old friend Ted Geisel to give him a shot at How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Linda Jones commented, "Ted Geisel and my father were always fans of each other's work. Ted was reluctant to have anyone animate his books, so he wanted it done carefully and well." Chuck Jones and Ted Geisel first met doing the Private Snafu cartoons about a goof-up soldier made by Warner Bros. for the Army between 1943 and 1945. Linda remembers as a little girl that Helen and Ted Geisel became devotedly attached to her because they had no children of their own. Linda recalled that, "At the age of 10, I would color with my crayons all over dedicated Dr. Seuss books, not realizing that at the time these books were first editions."
When you read How The Grinch Stole Christmas, it takes about 10 minutes. Chuck Jones' challenge was making those same rhyming couplets and drawings come alive for television. Jones worked attentively to create the Grinch model based on Dr. Seuss' book and choreographed actions that were only briefly mentioned in the book. According to Linda Jones, Geisel was not always entirely satisfied, but knew Chuck well enough to trust him with the character design and the story to make an engaging half hour special.
Linda Jones explained, "Making character animation without any CGI enhancements is an expensive proposition, but my father insisted on doing it correctly and using the best animators--Maurice Noble, Auril and Richard Thompson, Hall Ashmead and Phil Roman. Good character animation costs $110,000-150,000 per minute. Factor that by 20 and you realize the money involved. I recall there was a Variety review at the time claiming The Grinch was the most expensive animation made for CBS-TV. After 30 years, its success is proof it was not waste of money."
The story was expanded from the book with musical numbers like "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" and "Welcome Christmas" (composed by Albert Hague, lyrics by Dr. Seuss and vocals by Thurl Ravenscroft), as well as the Grinch's celebrated sleigh ride and by developing the part of his devoted canine friend Max, who was originally a minor character. I was glad to hear that Chuck Jones made Max a major character because he is one of my favorite characters when it comes to teaching us the true meaning of Christmas.
Linda Jones put it this way, "Chuck says a good film must have a point of view for the audience. Everyone watching can identify with Max. Even though the Grinch is mean, Max still loves him unconditionally. Max became the audience's point of view." Chuck Jones also points out that, "Max represents all of us. He is very honest, very decent, and a very put-upon dog. Dr. Seuss described him as 'Everydog--all love and limpness and loyalty'." Max's agape teaches us to be kind to everyone because deep down inside we are basically all the same.
Who the Grinch Really Is
There has been a long standing friendly debate about who the Grinch really is--during the making of the film, Geisel and Jones has occasional arguments about the Grinch's appearance. Linda Jones noted that, "When the Grinch's heart becomes two sizes bigger, his eyes turn a pretty blue (like Chuck Jones) and his complexion turns into a pleasing green. It was a self portrait of my father."
Different cultures have different Christmas traditions, yet all their differences are bonded together by one aspect--love. All the Grinch could think about was the noise of children playing with their new toys and the Whos gathered around the tree singing joyfully for Christmas Day. After ransacking Whoville and stealing every bit of Christmas, the Grinch's tender moment happens when he realizes it is not about the noise, or the tree trimmings, or the "roast beast" feast, not even the blissful singing.
Christmas is about love and peace for mankind and sharing it with one another, not only on Christmas Day but everyday. As Chuck Jones put it that evening, "When you work, only the love should show, not the work." How The Grinch Stole Christmas has revealed that love for 30 years and will for many more decades to come.
Frankie Kowalski is a former Associate Editor of Animation World Magazine.
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