Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol

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

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Happy Birthday, Mr. Magoo!

Today marks the 62nd anniversary of the release of Mr. Magoo's debut film, The Ragtime Bear.  The film had the working title, Strike Up the Banjo and, as you can see by the model sheet below, nowhere are there any identifying names nor is there any indication that the old man was the star of the film.  It's not difficult to believe that any one of the three characters depicted could have been the breakout character.  Or none of them.  Many characters debuted in films only to never be seen again, simply because they didn't resonate with the audience.  Jim Backus might forever have been known to popular culture only as James Dean's father in Rebel Without a Cause and Thurston Howell III.   And this blog might have been about Waldo's Christmas Carol.
Below is a line-up showing the evolution of Mr. Magoo from an irascible old coot into the lovable, nearsighted old man we know today.

The film that started it all:

Monday, September 26, 2011

Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol song folio

It only took 49 years but now, for the first time ever, a collection of the sheet music from Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol is available from Alfred Music Publishing.  It's a bound and illustrated folio containing all of the songs and lyrics from the special in their complete versions, including the deleted middle section of the singing waiters from “It’s Great to Be Back on Broadway”.  The edition includes a foreword by yours truly and was monitored and approved by the Styne estate. It’s a great compliment to last year’s DVD release and song release.  This a small press run so if you’ve been wanting to play and sing these tunes at home or include "Lord's Bright Blessing" as part of your Christmas caroling, don’t wait.  It’s available here now and in music stores, retailing for $14.99.  Amazon also has it here.

Monday, September 19, 2011

A Sequel to Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol?

Ebenezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim and Charles Dickens

It’s fairly well known that the success of Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol spawned the 1964 TV series, The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo.  What has been unknown until now is that there was a later attempt to recapture that earlier success by making a sequel to Christmas Carol.   A recent investigation into Lee Orgel’s files turned up a few copies of a long lost treatment called The Return of Ebenezer Scrooge.  Making sequels to projects from the past seems to be de rigueur in Hollywood today but it was less common at the time it was proposed.  

In this pitch, Lee Orgel, who worked with Barbara Chain to develop the concept, projected it to be “the second in a proposed series of animated specials based upon the work of Mr. Charles Dickens”  with Magoo playing the reoccurring role of Ebenezer Scrooge (a concept not unlike that of Famous Adventures).  It makes for an unusual sequel and injects Scrooge into key roles from other Dickens stories, in this case Oliver Twist.  The circle was now complete as the musical version of that story, Oliver!, was the original inspiration for Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol.  In this concept, a newly enlightened Ebenezer Scrooge becomes accidentally entwined in Oliver’s story and ends up becoming his benefactor, taking him from his life on the streets and raising him as his own, in effect, taking on the role of Mr. Brownlow from the novel.  It’s an interesting premise although not an entirely successful one, mashing up two of Dickens’ creations into one show.

Although some of the copies bear a UPA cover sheet, Lee Orgel was not directly employed by the company at the time but was acting as its representative in pitching the concept, which appears to have had its genesis in the early 1970s.  The first dated material in the files is a letter from Jule Styne’s office from May of 1973 expressing his interest in the project and agreeing to re-team with Bob Merrill to write the songs.  There are no Styne or Merrill files indicating that their participation ever went beyond this initial agreement.

Although Orgel probably began pitching the show around that time, nothing in the files indicates any further activity until a pitch at Universal in June of 1976.  It’s not unreasonable to assume that Orgel continued to shop the show after that and by this time, Orgel had allied himself with Depatie Freleng as a production house for the special, due in part to his efforts at selling Mr. Magoo as a new series, one that was eventually produced by the company.  The greatest concentration of sales efforts appears to have been in the summer of 1979 when the show was rejected by an ad agency, Helfgott, Towne and Silverstein and also Wometco Home Theatre, a NYC-centric early pay-TV service.  Despite those rejections, Orgel finally had a contract with Showtime in June of 1979 to produce the special but for unknown reasons, the deal fell through and the contract was never signed.

Lee continued to pitch the sequel but, showing just how much the cultural landscape had shifted since 1962, The Return of Ebenezer Scrooge was rejected at CBS in 1980,with the network telling him they were “not interested in a traditional story concept for a Christmas special”.  The show was also rejected at NBC for Project Peacock around the same time.  As with Christmas Carol, Orgel was tenacious and continued trying to sell the concept through the 1980s, at one point pitching it to Paramount at a cost considerably less than the original special, especially when inflation was taken into account. The final nail in the coffin appears to be a 1988 rejection letter by Andy Heyward of DIC (a TV animation company) who, apparently unaware of Lee’s history with the character, helpfully informs him that Hank Saperstein owns the rights to Magoo, telling him, “I thought you would want to know.”

It’s doubtful that The Return of Ebenezer Scrooge would have achieved anywhere near the success of its original inspiration.  By the 1980s, the culture had irretrievably changed, animation as a viable medium was in the doldrums and Mr. Magoo had begun fading from the public consciousness.  What is interesting, though, is that the success of Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol continued to reverberate for decades, much beyond what anyone could have predicted in 1962.

Special thanks to The Mago0 Admirer for the headline image.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Lee Orgel, The Man Behind the Musical, part II

Second in a two part series

Joining UPA
Orgel was hired as Director of Program Development and Producer for his projects that made it into production.  He arrived as The Mr. Magoo Show, which already had a producer, was nearing the end of production.  Having developed live-action properties prior to his arrival, he continued in that vein at the animation studio and in December of 1961, pitched a series of four shows to be called “Spectaculars”.  They were to be one hour specials and lit by famed stage lighting designer, Jo Mielziner.  The first one, “Solo”, was to involve individual recording stars, two of which were approached-Lena Horne and Peggy Lee.  The second, “Fashion”, would feature Miss Teen-Ager.  The third was to be Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, while the fourth was to be a Milton Berle spectacular, “Berle’s World”, featuring animated sequences within a live action episode.  The proposed series was never produced although Christmas Carol was to have its own future. 

His first big animation project, in which he packaged Chuck Jones, Judy Garland and Robert Goulet with the Wizard of Oz songwriting team of Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg was for the animated feature, Gay Purr-ee, released by Warner Bros. in late 1962.  (Left to right in the photo above are Lee Orgel, Judy Garland, Hank Saperstein, Robert Goulet, Abe Levitow and Chuck Jones.)  Despite his role as creative center and producer of the project, he was only given Associate Producer credit.  Long time Saperstein associate and co-purchaser of UPA, Peter DeMet, was to have been given Producer credit but receded from UPA’s affairs around this time leaving no one with Producer credit.  Following on the heels of this project was his idea for an animated Christmas special, the first of its kind, which would arrive just a few weeks after the feature's release.

Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol
Those familiar with my book  will already know of Orgel’s inspiration and tenacity in finding songwriters and in getting Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol sold and produced.  With the groundbreaking special’s huge success, the show went on to become a Christmas perennial.  NBC was so pleased they asked UPA for more Magoo and Lee complied, developing the 1964 series, The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo.  Orgel hoped to build on his success and continued to develop new projects for the UPA studio.  One, another holiday project entitled Christmas with Grandma Moses, was to be a one hour animated musical TV special based on the paintings by Anna Mary Robertson with a score and lyrics by Christmas Carol lyricist, Bob Merrill.  He also remained good friends with his collaborators from Gay Purr-ee, Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, and initiated discussions with them regarding a musical on Lewis Carroll, whom he acknowledged was “dull, dull, dull” as a subject.  Lee enlisted Christmas Carol scribe Barbara Chain to write a treatment and, although he was unable to generate enough interest in the project to get it produced, continued to shop the project for much of his career. 

Leaving UPA
Orgel, as part of his deal with Hank Saperstein, had been promised profit participation in projects he originated.  After having initiated and produced the feature length, Gay Purr-ee, the TV special, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, and developing The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo with no financial remuneration to show for them, Lee knew it was time to strike out on his own. 

Orgel's first success, with his newly formed company, JoMar Productions, was developing and selling the animated series, The New Three Stooges, which featured live-action wraparounds with the Stooges themselves.  The show was produced by Cambria Studios (who had also done Clutch Cargo) where a few Christmas Carol alumni also picked up work on the series.  Following this, his next project was an animated series on Abbott and Costello, and although he had planned on producing the series at Cambria, the show sponsor insisted it be done entirely at Hanna Barbera.  (The above still was an early publicity drawing, the final designs were far less caricatured and interesting.)  It seems that Orgel had an affinity for comedians as there are two storyboard pilots in his files, one for a Burns and Allen animated show, with George and Gracie appearing as a dog and a cat respectively, and one for a Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance show featuring Morey Amsterdam as their agent.  There’s also a budget for a later proposed Red Skelton project.

Later years
Lee once again turned to live-action in the years after UPA.  The producers of the Batman TV series asked Orgel to partner with neophyte screenwriter Stanley Ralph Ross and the two collaborated on the first two Catwoman episodes.  Ross caught on so quickly he went on to solo for 27 episodes, more than any other series writer.   They also collaborated on an episode for the series, Mr. Roberts.  Other shows for which he pitched episode treatments were The Dick Van Dyke Show, F Troop and Bewitched.

Orgel with the Christopher award
Although Orgel had left UPA, he remained on good terms with Saperstein and in 1969, was asked to produce Hank’s concept for a TV special, Uncle Sam Magoo, which later won the Christopher Award, given for media that brings “positive and constructive values into the mainstream of life”.   Lee reassembled some of the crew from Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, including director Abe Levitow, for the NBC show.  Taking a break from animation in 1973, Lee returned to his first love, live theater, and produced the well received George Bernard Shaw play for Broadway, “Don Juan in Hell”, directed by John Houseman and which starred Edward Mulhare, Ricardo Montalban, Paul Henreid and Agnes Moorhead.  For the second tour the following year, Myrna Loy replaced Moorhead.

However, Orgel never strayed too far from animation and in the mid-70s, did freelance writing for Hanna Barbera on The Scooby-Doo/DynoMutt Hour.  Around the same time, Hank Saperstein enlisted Orgel to find a licensee for a new Magoo series and the result was the 1977 DePatie-Freleng produced Saturday morning series, What’s New, Mr. Magoo?

Over the years, Lee Orgel continued to develop and sell a project he started in 1963, a show based on the Universal monsters, which were making a comeback in the early 60s.  The show began as a live-action series, Monsters Unlimited, hosted by Boris Karloff and was to have an animated intro using Charles Addams’ characters from his “New Yorker” cartoons.  Addams and his advisors at the magazine rejected the use although it was not long after that an entire series based on his work debuted.  Orgel’s show later evolved into one about a vampire, entitled Dracula A Go Go with Jonathan Winters proposed as the voice of the Count.  The title changed in 1970 to Pardon Me, Sir-Your Fangs Are Stuck in my Neck, which became All in Vein by the time it was pitched to DePatie-Freleng in the late 1970s.  After almost 15 years in development, it appeared that Lee had finally made a sale, only to have it canceled at the last minute much to his disappointment.  Never one to give up, he continued to pitch it, even to Showtime but the show never saw the light of day, so to speak.

By this point, Orgel had spent a long career in animation and had tired of the grind of developing and pitching projects.  In 1986, he joined Marvel Studios as a producer and writer on the action series, Defenders of the Earth, which featured such familiar comic strip characters as Flash Gordon, The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician.  A few years later, Orgel fell ill with a kidney issue, which was preliminarily diagnosed as cancer.  It later turned out to be a “football-sized” cyst on his kidney and both it and the kidney were removed.  However, the illness had taken its toll and he became weaker and weaker, culminating in a two year deep depression in which he didn’t work at all. 

Finally, a friend at Hollywood Film Laboratory offered him a job in Sales. Lee resisted at first, feeling the position wouldn’t utilize his creative skills, but later relented.  The job did make use of his contacts acquired through a long career in the entertainment industry and, more importantly, got him out of his funk.  He later moved to competitor Crest National as Vice President of Sales, where he spent the next 15 years, working with colleagues in the film business and USC Film School students, many of whom found a mentor in Lee.   He worked until just two weeks before his death from emphysema in May of 2004. It was clear from the attendance at his memorial service that he had touched a lot of people.  In recent years, interest has started to build  over his signature effort, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, and Lee Orgel has begun to gain recognition for his contributions to animation and pop culture.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Lee Orgel, The Man Behind the Musical

First of a two part series
The name Lee Orgel will be instantly recognizable to readers of my book as the creator and producer of Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol.  When I decided to do a profile of him for this blog, his wife and daughter graciously spent a number of afternoons with me going through his 60+ years of personal papers and photos as well as sharing their memories of the man they knew as husband and father.  Even Lee’s older brother contributed, recalling their childhood together.  What emerged was the inspiring story of an individual who started life’s journey a little farther behind than most, discovered the discipline of persistence at an early age and who overcame some significant obstacles including, most improbably, his own birth.

The early years
In late August of 1925 in North Bergen, New Jersey, the pregnant mother, who had a history of miscarriages, had suddenly gone into labor at home.  The baby was breech, her vital signs were falling fast and the doctor’s efforts were directed entirely at saving the mother.  When the baby was removed from the womb, it was black and lifeless.  While the doctor tended to the mother, the accompanying nurse took the newborn to the kitchen sink and began running alternating hot and cold water over it.  After a few agonizing moments, the inert figure began to gain color and finally started to cry.  That profound act would affect not only the child’s immediate and future family, but millions of Baby Boomers who would have fond memories of their own childhoods due to his career in the yet-to-be-invented medium of television.  

Young Lee Orgel would not have an easy childhood because, in the doctor's rush to remove the baby, the forceps permanently damaged his upper arm muscles.  For much of his childhood, Lee was forced to wear a brace strapping both his arms to his body.  A famous European doctor, Dr. Alfred Lorenz, known as The Bloodless Surgeon, consented to see young Lee and had the braces removed.  After months and months of prescribed hydrotherapy and physical rehabilitation, Lee eventually regained partial use of his left arm.  However, since the upper right arm muscles were destroyed during birth, he could only move his lower right arm, using his fingers to crawl forward to do anything with it.  Despite the condition (later known as Erb’s Palsy), Lee managed to have a fairly normal rest of his childhood, working around his disability.  As an adult, he never referred to it or allowed it to affect his work.  Most people were never even aware of the condition.

The Capitol Theater in 1959
Lee began his career working as an usher at Loew’s flagship theater in New York, the Capitol Theater, right out of high school.  Sometime later, when the second assistant stage manager suddenly quit, the executives from Loews (who also owned the MGM Studio) began looking for a replacement.  Orgel saw them while backstage one day and said the job was so easy any idiot could do it.  They turned to him and said, ‘You’re hired.’  He spent the next 8 years working at the theater, meeting the likes of Frank Sinatra, Robert Walker, Dick Powell and Martin & Lewis.

Seeing the end was nearing for this particular kind of theater, Orgel moved into the brand new world of television around 1950.  Television had begun to displace motion pictures and theater as a means of entertainment and employees in those mediums struggled to discern a place for themselves in the new order.  Being so new, no one yet had a clear idea on just where TV would settle and to mitigate risk, budgets were low.  With his wife Lea, they formed their own company, Citadel Television, out of offices across the street from his former job, supplying the networks with film footage.  There he produced one of the first animated commercials for TV for the Dodge Dealers of America.  Times were difficult during the transition and as the networks began to take their film needs in-house, Lee soon found himself looking for work.   

Rare photo taken on the set of The Morey Amsterdam Show
He joined good friend Morey Amsterdam, whom he had met while at the Capitol, on The Morey Amsterdam Show at the Dumont network after the show moved from radio to television.  From there, he ended up as a producer of network shows for ABC doing one of the first local shows for children, CartoonTeletales, later taking a job as manager of the Radio-TV dept at the advertising agency, Nardella, Collins and Company.  Orgel could see the future of entertainment was in television and with that in mind, approached New York radio station, WOR, and locked up the TV rights to such radio mysteries as Mysterious Traveler, Inner Sanctum and Michael Shayne, based on a series of popular detective books by Brent Halliday.

Lee and Lea Orgel, newly arrived in Los Angeles
RKO, in Los Angeles, expressed interest in the proposed group of series but soon after the Orgels moved out to Los Angeles,  the deal fell through.  Fortunately, Sterling Television, a distributor of pre-existing filmed product for TV, called and from 1952-1958, the husband and wife duo traveled to, and sold films to, virtually every television station in the eleven western states.  Sterling’s catalog included features, silent films, half hour shows and cartoons.  As related in my book, one of his most significant clients was Walt Disney.

In early 1958, Lee Orgel began his long association with animation, resigning as West Coast manager of Sterling Television to become division sales vice president for The New Adventures of Crusader Rabbit being produced by Shull Bonsall’s TV Spots.  While there, Lee co-scripted at least one adventure, “The Not So Very Big Top”.  Lee was also still  involved with the Michael Shayne property and approached actor Dick Powell, one of the four major stars in Four Star Productions, to produce the series.  Powell agreed and with that, Orgel developed the series, Michael Shayne, which aired on  NBC TV in the fall of 1960.  Unfortunately, the series was in competition with The Twilight Zone on Friday nights and based on the books' description of Shayne, appears to have been miscast leaving the show with a legacy of only one season.  After the show’s cancellation, Lee took his expertise at developing and selling programming to Henry G. Saperstein and his newly television-oriented studio, UPA.  Saperstein asked him to start the following Monday.

Next week, Lee Orgel joins UPA