Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol

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

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.


Jerry Beck said...

Thank you Darrell for this amazing tribute to Lee Orgel.

I knew Lee - but not in relation to any of the above. When I had my own film distribution company, Streamline Pictures (distributing 35mm prints of Japanese anime, from 1989-1993), I met Lee at Crest Labs and I became a regular client. What a great guy he was. He was always ready to help me accomplish whatever it was I was trying to accomplish in those days.

I stayed in touch with Lee at Crest throughout the years after Streamline. Whenever I needed some film duplicated, or a 35mm print transferred to video, I called Lee. I was such an idiot - for ten years I did not put two and two together and realize that Lee Orgel at Crest was "Lee Orgel" from UPA and Batman (I love that Catwoman episode - and got to know Stanley Ralph Ross, but I digress). At one late point in the early 2000s, I had a formal lunch with Lee to ask him about working in animation... I was blown away when I found out what he had done. One lunch was simply not enough time to dig into his life. He passed away shortly afterward.

So again, I thank you for doing this. He was truly a great person and, as we say, a real mensch.

Joe R. Frinzi said...

Great stuff Darrell. Thanks. If you do any more on Abe Levitow, maybe you can dig up some info about his stint doing Dick Tracy.

Matt said...

Hi Darrell,

Thanks for the great article! I'm writing a graduate research paper on The New 3 Stooges and was curious if you still had any info gathered from Orgel's papers on that series? Any help or words of wisdom you could provide would be most appreciated!


Matt said...

Hi Darrell,

Thanks for the great article! I'm writing a graduate research paper on The New 3 Stooges and was curious if you still had any info gathered from Orgel's papers on that series? Any help or words of wisdom you could provide would be most appreciated!


Darrell said...


I didn't find much on that series in Lee's papers. Have you checked out The New Three Stooges DVD put out by Rhino? Lee is interviewed there. I tried to track down the raw interview tapes but was unsuccessful to see what else he had to say about any other parts of his career. I'm sure the tapes still exist...somewhere. The best info I could get on that show was from Lee's widow, which wasn't too much.


Henry R. Kujawa said...

What a fascinating project, an entire blog devoted to a SINGLE animated special. I probably saw "MR. MAGOO'S CHRISTMAS CAROL" when it was first-run, and several years after. Growing up in the 60s, I long considered there were 4 animated Christmas specials that were "the classics": "MR. MAGOO", "RUDOLPH", "A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS" and "HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS". Almost nothing that followed ever came close to them! And I recall seeing each one on their 1st run. But for whatever odd reason, "MR. MAGOO" at some point vanished from reruns, and I haven't seen it in decades. I look forward to getting it on DVD one of these days.

Oddly enough... I found your blog looking for info about Lee Orgel. His IMDB bio had so little info, I wondered if he'd spent most of his time in live stage theatre. I'm currently on my 2nd run watching the Adam West "BATMAN" series since buying it on DVD. I knew Stanley Ralph Ross , who managed to neatly combine exciting adventure with OUTRAGIOUSLY INSANE COMEDY, did most of the Catwoman stories. But... WHO was Lee Orgel, who only worked on the 1st one, the only one played serious? In fact, of the entire 1st season, there's only a handful (the first 2 Riddler stories, the 1st Mr. Freeze story) that were played so straight, and "The Purr-Fect Crime" may be the single MOST SERIOUS story in the entire run. I wondered, how did this happen?

If I had to guess... it seems most times, when 2 writers are listed, unless they're a regular team (or man-and-wife team), one does the "story" and the other the "screenplay". My suspicion is that Lee Orgel may have done the screenplay. There's virtually NOTHING funny in it, and only a couple of quirky bits like Jock Mahoney saying, "We didn't mean to step on your paws, Catwoman", or Neil Hamilton looking straight at the camera and saying, "Good luck, to all of us!" Suffice to say, as a kid, this episode was one of my favorites. Looking at it now, I'm STUNNED at how good it was, and part of me wishes more of the show had been played this intense.

The 2 previous stories, by comparison-- The Mad Hatter & False Face-- are both mostly serious, except, in both cases, the dialogue is COMPLETELY insane. Jaw-droppingly so. NOBODY talks like that in real life, and in fact, almost never like that on the "BATMAN" show. Far more than Lorenzo Semple Jr. or even Stanley Ralph Ross tended to do. If I'm right, those writers went completely in the opposite direction I suspect Lee Orgel did. Could this be why Orgel never did any more? If so, SHAME on the producers! In my opinion, when the show fell right off a cliff into outright silliness, it hurt the ratings. That show required a very special mix, and too many writers-- ESPECIALLY the guy they promoted to story editor with season 2, Charles Hoffman-- didn't know the difference between "funny" and "just plain STUPID".

Thanks for filling in so many gaps on someone that, until tonight, I knew virtually NOTHING about!

Darrell said...

Henry, I'm glad you found the blog! Are you aware that the book on the making of the special is back in print? (Softcover this time, available online only at your favorite booksellers.) You should definitely get the blu-ray, too, the show was remastered from the original negative and elsewhere on this blog I show dramatic comparisons between the old transfer and the new one. There are also some nice bonus features including the lost overture and some of Styne and Merrill's original song demos.

Although I've looked at Lee's copies of the various iterations of the Catwoman scripts, it's impossible to know who did what on the scripts. Suffice to say that he and his family were quite proud that those episodes are considered some of the best of the series.