Rediscovering 'Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol'

Animation vet Darrell Van Citters resurrects the ghost of a lost TV classic in his new book.

Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol was the first holiday TV sensation of the '60s, spawning the more popular Rudolph, A Charlie Brown Christmas and Grinch. All images © 2009 Classic Media, Inc. Images courtesy of Darrell Van Citters.

Darrell Van Citters, supervising director of Renegade Animation, was inspired as a child by Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol. Its graphic UPA style was a major influence for a generation of animators and yet the once beloved '60s TV holiday sensation has been overshadowed by the more popular Dr. Seuss, Rankin/Bass and Peanuts productions that followed. However, Citters has written a fascinating new book, Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol: The Making of the First Animated Christmas Special, published this month by Oxberry Press. He details the quirky confluence of bizarre events that brought the first animated television Christmas special to homes in 1962, mixing the popular Mr. Magoo (voiced by Jim Backus) with the beloved Dickens' holiday classic. Marketing whiz Henry Saperstein, visionary producer Lee Orgel, director Abe Levitow and the fortuitous hiring of Broadway composers Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, who were on hiatus from Funny Girl while they were searching for a lead, all feature prominently in this story about a lost gem. Van Citters interviewed all the surviving participants and offers a wonderful array of art, and reminisces about the TV special with us.

Bill Desowitz: Thanks for reminding me what a treat this show was. I haven't seen it since I was a child, which is an indication of it being neglected. Is that what prompted you to write this?

Darrell Van Citters:

Yes, but I was scared to death that during the interview process some of these people would be lost. The other consideration was giving them attention while they were still alive. That's why I pushed hard to get the book out before any of them died.

BD: What does Magoo's Christmas Carol mean to you?

The songs by Styne and Merrill really stand out along with the trademark UPA graphic style.

DVC:

It always was [important to me]. I found it appealing on a story level and on a cartoon level. It just summed up what cartoons were to me. Did I ever think I would write a book on it? No. It was a fun journey and I learned a lot about the process that led to [the production of the special]. Just how much there was to that story that one might've thought at first blush.

BD: It came about at an interesting time. The Funny Girl connection was fascinating. If the project hadn't been stalled with looking for the lead and not yet discovering Streisand, they wouldn't have gotten Styne and Merrill, right?

DVC:

Yeah, how about that? At the time, they had these unsolvable things that become classic moments. The other thing I found interesting about that is how many A-list guys were approached to do it. They went straight to the top, which was kind of ballsy. But if you grew up in that milieu, it wasn't so ballsy. That one really startled me. Nothing ever falls into place. And clearly they had their ups and downs on this project, but it came out the right way.

BD: What did you learn?

DVC: Well, the whole thing with Walt Disney. That was stunning to me that he would call Orgel and congratulate him after it aired. It was interesting that he would call about a TV special and congratulate someone from UPA because they had broken away from Disney and it wasn't pretty.

BD: What else?

Mr. Magoo had already been a sensation, but to lessen the risk of casting him as Scrooge, they fashioned a Broadway musical backdrop.

DVC: The songwriters was an interesting little tidbit.

BD: What about the animation?

DVC:

The surprise there was how quickly this thing was put out: spending a year trying to get the thing off the ground and then boom: it's done! You couldn't do a whole lot without recording the tracks and they were done in June and this thing aired in December. You can board and things like that, and in those days you had to go to film, so they would've had to have been done at least a month earlier than their air date. In that situation, everything works or the speed makes you suffer.

BD: What else led you to want to write the book?

DVC: The Charlie Brown Christmas book came out and they had one for Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. I thought that this was right up with those guys and somebody's got to put a book out on Mr. Magoo. Nobody ever did and I didn't give it any thought until one day a friend of mine and I were discussing an artist who did serigraphs and he mentioned that he happened to also backgrounds on Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol. Well, that's pretty obscure information. So after that, I thought we should go talk to him and see what he knows about the production. We contacted him through a gallery and he said he was up for talking. I got a nice digital recorder, had all my questions written out, sat down in front of him and asked him what he remembered about Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol. And he said he didn't even remember working on it.

BD: That says it all, doesn't it?

Magoo and Dickens turned out to be a perfect match.

DVC: That's what he did to just pay for his passion, which was painting serigraphs. So I thought: that's probably not enough of an answer for me. So I started looking at the credits and seeing who was still around and how you could get into contact with them. The biggest revelation was actually coming across a review on Amazon of the DVD. And the reviewer happened to be the producer's son, Mark Orgel. It was amazing that I came across his name and I looked him up and sent him a letter and he said that I should contact his mom, who's still alive in Burbank. That's what blew open the whole idea for a book. She had these great stories and showed me a little note from Richard Rodgers on his stationary saying he was sorry he couldn't take the project but he'd see what he could do to recommend others. I thought that was stunning that Richard Rodgers was even considered and she started telling me other stories. I started talking to the old crew and found a piece of art here and another piece there. When I started this project, I had six pieces of art and eventually I got over 230 illustrations for the book.

BD: What else really stands out about the show?

DVC: The songs. Not just musically but the lyrics really hit people where they live like "Alone in the World" or "Winter Was Warm." That doesn't work so well on a child's level but really works well for adults: anyone who's had loved and lost. "The Lord's Bright Blessing" talks about the spirit of Christmas so well, without being cloying. The sentiments really echo what was in the original Dickens material.

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.

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