Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol

A blog dedicated to the making of the first animated Christmas special, Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol.

Friday, December 12, 2014

A visit by the Ghost of Christmas Past



Followers of this blog will recall the much anticipated re-broadcast of Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol for the special's 50th anniversary in December of 2012 and the unanimous disappointment with NBC's editorial skills, hacking 8 random minutes from the film, rendering it completely incomprehensible.  It looked like the first animated Christmas special was doomed to the ash heap of television history, a verdict that seemed sure when the show failed to be broadcast last year.

However, I'm told by multiple sources that Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol will be airing this year, this time on The CW on December 19th, with times variously listed as 7 or  8 PM (check your local listings for station and time).  I've also been told that it will run in a 90 minute slot, which should mean it will be complete.  Not even the most rapacious advertiser should be able to fill up 38 minutes of airtime in 90 minutes.  I can't vouch for the accuracy of the slot/run time so caveat emptor.  If true, we can hope that a new generation of TV viewers will rediscover Lee Orgel's special, Styne and Merrill's timeless songs and the sincerity and faithfulness of Barbara Chain's adaptation of Dicken's original novel.

UPDATE:

The special will also air on The CW on Christmas Eve so you if you miss this Friday, be sure to catch it on the night before Christmas. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol, live

Douglas Sills, who will be performing the role of Magoo/Scrooge.
It's been talked about for years, doing a live, theatrical version of Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol and here's what might be the first step--a benefit concert featuring all the songs from the special sung by current Broadway performers.  The event happens December 15th in New York, details can be found here.  I understand it's being sponsored by Jule Styne's widow, Margaret Styne, with several other key players laboring behind the scenes for the last 18 months or so to bring it to fruition.  If any of you are fortunate enough (or well-off enough) to see it, write in with details.  Here's hoping it leads to a full-blown theatrical staging: an animated musical set on the Broadway stage actually being performed on the Broadway stage!

Monday, December 1, 2014

Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol, revisited


As the Christmas season is upon us, it seems only fitting that I should start out the month of December with a new post sharing some recent discoveries from Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol

I learned many things researching, writing and publishing three editions of my book on the making of the classic special, but perhaps the most salient thing I learned is that no book is ever complete.  When I put together the 50th anniversary edition, I did everything I could to make it the most complete version of the book using new information, artwork and photos.  After 5 years with the material, it seemed like anything waiting to be discovered had already been found.  And for a couple of years I was right.

However, life is never that simple.  When Lea Orgel, widow of producer and MMCC creator Lee Orgel, needed to move into an assisted living facility because of declining health, I was asked by her daughter, JoAnn, to help her dig through a lifetime's worth of boxes in Lea's storage unit.  We went through all the boxes pertaining to Lee's career in entertainment but found nothing of significance regarding the Christmas special.

Three months ago, JoAnn called me asking me to take a look at several boxes she had discovered that had been marked in such a way as to mislead us as to the nature of their contents.  Because we had already gone through so many boxes, I assumed that what was in these boxes was most likely material from Lee Orgel's later career, and my assumption proved to be largely correct.  There were stacks of art from the mid-60s to the mid-70s, most of it drawn by Corny Cole, everything from The New Three Stooges to a variety of ABC After School Specials, from unproduced pilots to prime time animated specials.  One pilot, the Morey Amsterdam-produced Black, Cloke and Dagga, was the subject of a previous post on Cartoon Research.  (Images from the other projects will be posted in a future blog entry.)

But the most amazing find was hidden in a letter-sized box, which appeared to contain merely a 2" stack of photos from Lee Orgel's Capitol Theater days, signed 8 x 10s from famous and obscure singers and musicians who performed at the theater.  The images were fascinating as a time capsule but also interesting to see well-known performers like Doris Day as they were in the 40s.  However, in the middle of that stack of photos were fifteen 4 x 4" photos taken during the song recording session for Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol!  Photos that hadn't been seen since they were taken and had never before been published, photos that I would have loved to have included in the 50th anniversary edition, photos that gave just a tiny bit more insight into that historic day.

As there are no plans to do another edition of the Magoo book, I have decided to post the photos here.  For the first time in 52 years, here are the long lost images:

Jule Styne with Jane Kean, the biggest find in the batch.

Production manager Earl Jonas talks with Hank Saperstein while Jim Backus reads the trades.


Lee Orgel confers with Jim Backus.

Jim Backus chats with Hank Saperstein.



Paul Frees with Jule Styne.  In the background are Royal Dano, left, and Earl Jonas, right.

Walter Scharf conducts a rehearsal as Backus listens.











Monday, October 20, 2014

Pitching The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo

Pitch art for Robin Hood, artist unknown
My last post, Mr. Magoo and the Features That Never Were, featured some rare UPA pitch art for the studio's unproduced Mr. Magoo features.  Considering the lineage between the feature concepts and the concept for the 1964 TV series, The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo, it seemed only fitting to do a post on the artwork produced to pitch the show to NBC.


Pitch art for William Tell, possibly drawn by Bob Dranko


The 1962 broadcast debut of Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol had performed well beyond expectations and the network was looking for a followup.  The special had featured Magoo playing a role in a piece of classic literature and considering that all of UPA's previous proposed feature vehicles had done the same, Robin Hood, Don Quixote and 1001 Arabian Nights, it was not a big leap to suggest an entire series based around the premise.  Hank Saperstein was a consummate salesman but despite his skills, he still needed some visuals to clinch the deal.  It was most likely Lee Orgel that put together the art that sold the series, turning to Shirley Silvey, who was on layoff from Jay Ward at the time, and Corny Cole, who had produced the concept art that had previously sold Christmas Carol.

Pitch art by Corny Cole
How many drawings were done by Corny Cole is unknown but about half a dozen have surfaced.  It appears that Shirley did a much larger number of images for a wide variety of stories, although most of the original drawings and setups have been lost.  Below is a scan of many of her pieces that were photographed for early promotion, this image is from a brochure sent to NBC affiliates.


When I was going through the boxes of her surviving artwork, I found photocopies of a few of her thumbnails; it's possible that some of these were never taken to full-sized color artwork.  The quality is poor so click on them to enlarge:

 
Captain Kidd

Don Quixote


 
Treasure Island


The final rendering for the left thumbnail for "Treasure Island" is reproduced in the pamphlet image above.  Recently discovered in Ray Bradbury's collection, and sold at auction, was the following piece of pitch art for Famous Adventures, also by Shirley Silvey.  The background is done with cut paper and colored pencil:


The setup below, which was reproduced in my book, was listed as artist unknown.  Looking at the breadth of the art done by Shirley as well as her drawing style and the use of cut-out background elements and color pencil, it appears that this piece can now be attributed to her.


Special thanks once again to the Mago0 Admirer for the idea behind this post.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Mr. Magoo and The Features That Never Were

Those who read this blog or who are up on their animation history will know that Mr. Magoo starred in an animated feature, the 1959 release, 1001 Arabian Nights.  But how many are aware that it was not the only vehicle considered for a Magoo feature?  As with most of film production, there are fits, starts and even different directions taken before arriving at the final destination.  So it was with Mr. Magoo and his feature career.

The UPA studio had built their reputation in animation on three things--contemporary art, contemporary situations and the use of human characters, rather than animals, to tell their stories.  It was a deliberate rejection of Walt Disney's approach to the medium but when they began to contemplate producing a feature, they unconsciously followed Disney's lead when it came to subject matter.  All of their proposed features involved non-contemporary or mythical settings and several went back to classic literature.  The first to be generate much pre-production work was based on James Thurber's 1945 children's fairy tale, The White Deer.  Although the story dealt with something that had become Disney's stock-in-trade, the fairy tale, the studio was quite excited about adapting the work of a contemporary artist like James Thurber.

But it was not to be.  It wasn't long before Columbia, UPA's distributor, let it be known that they would feel much more comfortable if the studio built a film around the highly popular character of Mr. Magoo.  Seeing the Golden Rule in play here--he who has the gold, makes the rules--UPA acquiesced and announced a feature version of Miguel Cervantes' classic novel, Don Quixote of La Mancha with Mr. Magoo in the title role.  Although development work was done on the project, Columbia had subsequently entered into an agreement with a Spanish producer to do a live-action film of the novel and sidelined the animated version.

 
Pitch art for Don Quixote, artist unknown.

To take its place, two other Magoo vehicles were developed, Robin Hood and 1001 Arabian Nights.  When it came time to pick between the two, studio head Stephen Bosustow chose 1001.  Jim Backus was aware of the Robin Hood project and in an interview promoting 1001, he provided a small peek behind the scenes, saying  "We used to talk and we thought Magoo would be funny in ... maybe  Don Quixote.  He would be wonderful ... because he is tilting (at) windmills and we finally, I think, hit upon the one universal character, the Aladdin theme of the Arabian Nights. So it's the first feature  and I hope not the last. We are also toying with doing Robin Hood ... (Magoo) as Robin Hood ... which would be kind of funny, I would think."   

However, the box office failure of 1001 Arabian Nights doomed the notion of any future Magoo features and so decimated the studio's finances that shortly thereafter Bosustow sold UPA to Hank Saperstein.  The concept of a Magoo/Robin Hood theatrical feature was lost in the mists of time until a few years ago when a few pieces of the pre-production art for the film first surfaced:




Although a theatrical feature was never produced, "Robin Hood" did later see life as a virtual feature length production,  covering a span of 4 episodes for The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo just five years later.  This time, though, Magoo was no longer playing the role of the title character and was recast as Friar Tuck.  Saperstein later edited the four half hours into a complete story and released it theatrically and later the same way on home video.  Which leads to an interesting conjecture--was a script written for the proposed feature and did it serve as the basis for the four part TV episode?  Saperstein was known for maximizing his return on investment so the idea of recycling an unproduced script would not be far fetched.  And innterestingly enough, "Don Quixote" was the only other Famous Adventure to last more than one episode--was this another example of salvaging material from UPA's proposed features?  With so little of either the pre- or post-Saperstein UPA archives available, we will probably never know. 

Lee Mishkin's models for the four part Robin Hood episode



To read more about UPA's foray into feature films, check out Adam Abraham's essential history of the UPA studio, When Magoo Flew.  Special thanks to the Mago0 Admirer for his assistance on this post.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Lea Orgel, 1925-2014

Lea and Lee Orgel shortly after their arrival in California.
It is with great sadness that I report the passing of Lea Orgel, the wife of Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol creator, Lee Orgel, who left us early in the morning of September 30, 2014.  Although her name would likely not be familiar to any of the readers of this blog or my book, she was the person most responsible for my decision to write the book on the making of Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol.  If it hadn't been for her razor sharp mind and her retention of key documents from the production of the special, there wouldn't have been any story to tell.  What I found in interviewing her and in reviewing the documents was that there was a story so compelling it had to be shared with others.

Lea freely gave of her time for a number of interviews and generously allowed me to borrow and scan documents and photos for use in the book.  Until then, who knew that the groundbreaking special's song recording sessions had been photographed?  It was also through her that I met others who had worked at UPA and who could fill me on some of the studio's back story during the Saperstein years.  She was never anything but supportive of my efforts to do the book for which I will be eternally grateful.  And when I wanted to tell more of her husband's story than I could fit in the book, she dug deep into her files and memories and shared them with me and ultimately, many others through this blog (Lee's profile can be found here).

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Lea Orgel and daughter JoAnn at the 45th anniversary party for the Christmas special.
I think the thing I found to be most inspiring about Lea, though, was her enduring love for her husband, who had predeceased her by a decade.  She never dwelt in the past but it was clear to me that they had once formed a team so strong that although the two of them had been separated, the bond would never be broken.  Finally, the team is together again.  Thank you, Lea, for having entered my life, and thank you, Lee, for the gift of Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Happy 65th birthday, Mr. Magoo!

On this day in animation history, the first Mr. Magoo cartoon, a Jolly Frolic called Ragtime Bear, was released by Columbia Pictures.  Written by Millard Kaufman, laid out by Bill Hurtz and directed by John Hubley, the short changed the fortunes of the nascent UPA studio and later created a merchandising bonanza for Hank Saperstein.  You can see a model sheet from the original production right here on this blog from his birthday a few years ago.  

There were dozens of cartoons produced featuring the nearsighted Mr. Magoo, a feature, 1001 Arabian Nights, the first animated Christmas special, Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol, and three separate animated television series: The Mr. Magoo Show, The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo and What's New, Mr. Magoo?

Few people below the age of forty even know who Mr. Magoo was and it's safe to say that most anyone younger than that has never even seen a Mr. Magoo cartoon.  Its unfortunate that Mr. Magoo was retired long before he turned 65 but here's hoping that another generation rediscovers him. Happy Birthday, Mr. Magoo!

Mr. Magoo enjoying his retirement