What kind of Christmas would it be without the resourceful Rudolph or Hermey the aspiring dentist, without friendly Frosty or the dastardly Heat and Snow Misers?
Jules Bass brought them all to vivid, animated life on TV. And with his producing and directing partner Arthur Rankin Jr., he didn’t just contribute indelible classics to the canon of Christmas specials – he helped popularize the genre.
Bass, who helmed beloved animated Christmas specials like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Frosty the Snowman,” died this week, publicist Jennifer Ruff told CNN. He was 87.
Born Julius Bass, the Philadelphia native attended college in New York City, where he met Rankin. The pair, then employed at an advertising agency, teamed up first to create commercials but yearned to move into creative programming.
After Rankin toured a Tokyo animation studio, he and Bass decided to create a series in stop-motion animation, a technique they’d call “Animagic.” Their first effort was the children’s show “The New Adventures of Pinocchio,” also the first series produced by the company that would become Rankin/Bass Animated Entertainment.
But the duo left a permanent mark on TV with the 1964 debut of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” a stop-motion special based on the Christmas story and popular song. The 55-minute special expanded the story to include a crew of misfit toys, a snowman narrator voiced by Burl Ives, a too-skinny Santa and a bizarre mustachioed prospector named Yukon Cornelius.
“Rudolph’s” unique animation style and lovable cast made it a hit among critics – the New York Times called it a “charming and tuneful hour of fantasy” – and audiences. It’s since become one of the longest-running Christmas specials in history, airing on TV nearly every year since its first run.
The pair went on to create more Christmas specials in stop-motion, like “The Year Without a Santa Claus” and “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” as well as traditionally animated hits like “Frosty the Snowman.” Many of those specials still air every year between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.
Bass and Rankin worked together for decades, crafting stop-motion feature films like “Mad Monster Party” and animated adaptations of “The Hobbit” and “The Return of the King.” The duo also produced the cult-classic TV series “Thundercats.” They continued working together until Rankin/Bass shut down for good in 1987, though they’d reunite once more for a 2001 special called “Santa, Baby!”
Bass’ artistic partner was the more vocal of the two, and he regularly handled interviews and press for their projects, said Rick Goldschmidt, a former colleague of the pair who wrote “The Enchanted World of Rankin/Bass.” Bass was content to stay out of the limelight and continue his work, which included writing the children’s picture book “Herb, the Vegetarian Dragon” and the romantic novel “Headhunters,” which became a 2011 film called “Monte Carlo” starring Selena Gomez. An “incredible chef,” according to Ruff, Bass also created a children’s cookbook of vegetarian recipes featuring, naturally, Herb the dragon.
In the 2010s, he attempted to mount a musical about composer Oliver Messiaen, who composed music while imprisoned at a German POW camp. The show never made it to Broadway, but Bass’ own affinity for music shone through in his various projects. He penned lyrics to beloved songs in many of the films he co-directed, including the themes for both Heat and Snow Misers in “The Year Without a Santa Claus” and “The Greatest Adventure” from “The Hobbit.”
The latter song was a simple but stirring tale that encapsulated Bilbo Baggins’ life-changing decision in just a few lines, and remains one of Bass’ most touching creations: “The greatest adventure is what lies ahead; today and tomorrow are yet to be said. The chances, the changes are all yours to make. The mold of your life is in your hands to break.”