“Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol,” the first animated yuletide special, premiered on NBC in 1962 and introduced a lot of youngsters to Charles Dickens’ beloved “A Christmas Carol.” Featuring a melodic score by Broadway composers Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, and a masterful turn as the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge by the nearsighted cartoon character Quincy Magoo, the hourlong special quickly became a perennial on NBC during the 1960s and has lived on in syndication and DVD.
But the special encountered a few challenges that could have turned this “Christmas Carol” into a humbug instead of a delicious serving of “razzleberry dressing” and “Woofle jelly cake.”
The special’s producer, Lee Orgel, didn’t think that Jim Backus, who has been the voice of the cranky Magoo since its debut in 1949, could handle the musical numbers. “Lee had just produced the animated film ‘Gay Purr-ee’ with Judy Garland and Robert Goulet,” says animator Darrell Van Citters, author of “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol: The Making of the First Animated Christmas Special.” Van Citters will host a screening of “Magoo” at 4 p.m. Saturday at the American Cinematheque’s Aero Theatre in Santa Monica.
“Lee wanted Robert Goulet to sing all of Jim Backus’ parts,” Van Citters says. “Somehow Jim must have convinced him he could pull it off. I don’t think it would have worked with Goulet. There would be a real audience disconnect.”
Orgel had a difficult time initially getting a composer to write the score. Van Citters explains that he first approached composer Richard Rodgers, but he turned it down. So did Frank Loesser.
But Styne responded to the project quickly. He brought Merrill on board, and they began writing the songs in March 1962, even before the animation began on the special.
Mr. Magoo was created by UPA animation studio and made his debut in “Ragtime Bear” in 1949. Two of the shorts starring the little, wealthy retiree who refused to admit he needed glasses won Academy Awards: 1955’s “When Magoo Flew” and 1956’s “Magoo’s Puddle Jumper.” He even starred in a feature-length film, 1959’s “1001 Arabian Nights.”
But in 1960, UPA changed hands. Because the theatrical market for animated shorts had run dry, they began making cartoons for television.
It was Orgel’s idea to put Magoo and UPA’s other famous character, Gerald McBoing-Boing — as Tiny Tim — into a musical version of the Dickens classic, Van Citters explains. “It seemed like an odd thing, but he probably saw Lionel Bart’s “Oliver!’ on stage, and that was the first time they put music and lyrics together to Dickens.”
Van Citters says that it is the score that really makes the special soar. And so do the performers, including such Broadway vets as Jack Cassidy and Jane Kean. Among the gems are the lively “The Lord’s Bright Blessing,” the poignant “Alone in the World” and the haunting tune of lost love, “Winter Was Warm.”