Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol

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

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The 50th Anniversary Airing of Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol on NBC

Having been perhaps the biggest, if not sole, cheerleader for this classic special for the last 5 years, I have to say I can’t help but feel betrayed by what NBC did to it for its 50th anniversary airing.  Based on the interviews I gave to promote the broadcast, a new viewer would certainly look askance at what was presented and wonder if I had all my marbles.  It was perhaps the clumsiest and most heavy-handed editing job I’ve ever seen, providing no introduction to the story and no satisfying conclusion.  Songs were hacked midway through, story points edited out and considering that the current generation is unfamiliar with the character of Mr. Magoo, the lack of any introduction to the character is hard to fathom.  How is a new generation supposed to embrace this classic special?

The seemingly endless barrage of commercials clumsily placed into the special made the narrative almost incomprehensible.  Because the story was so severely hacked up, cutting back from long breaks made it hard to remember where we had left off and how the new scenes related to the previous scenes.  If this had been just one more seasonal presentation of the special, it could perhaps be dismissed but considering that it was the 50th anniversary of the special and the first time it had aired on broadcast television in 45 years, it’s inexcusable.

I think perhaps the saddest part of the whole ‘event’ was the commercials which seemed to mock the very spirit of the story and to show just how far the culture has fallen in the last 50 years.  If Lee Orgel had been worried at the time about whether or not his special was in good taste, he would have been appalled at the taste exhibited in most of the ads interrupting the show.  In fact, the overwhelming feeling from the airing was that the special was interrupting the commercials, which were clearly the point of the broadcast.  Perhaps what the airing helped to demonstrate is the continuing decline of the relevance of broadcast television.  It was certainly no way to celebrate the special.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Recording of Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol, Pt. 2

The studio entrance in the 1940s
In a previous post I discussed the history of the facility where the dialogue sessions for Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol took place, Ryder Sound Services.  In honor of the special’s 50th anniversary today, we will be visiting the facility where the songs were recorded, the Scoring Stage on the Samuel Goldwyn lot or Stage 7 as it was also known.

The west entrance of Stage 7 today
The Goldwyn lot has been around since 1917, and has been variously known as the Hampton Studios, the Pickford-Fairbanks Studio, the  United Artists Studio and for most of its history, the Samuel Goldwyn Studios.  For a period, Warner Bros. owned the lot, calling it Warner Bros. Hollywood but today, it’s known simply as The Lot.  Some of the features shot there include the silent version of Robin Hood, West Side Story, Some Like It Hot and Porgy and Bess.  TV shows to film there, either on the backlot or on stages include The Fugitive, Dynasty and Sid and Marty Krofft’s, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters.  The backlot no longer exists and has been taken over by an electric substation, partially seen in the upper right corner in the photo below.  
View of Stage 7 from the adjacent parking structure
For 45 years, the Goldwyn scoring stage was considered the premiere orchestral recording facility in the motion picture industry.  Lee Orgel had aimed high when he went looking for songwriters for the first animated Christmas special, snagging two of the premiere Broadway songwriters of the time, Jule Styne and Bob Merrill.  He continued in that same vein with his choice of recording venues, using first Ryder Sound for the dialogue sessions and then the scoring stage on the Goldwyn lot for the day-long song recording session.  Walter Scharf later returned to the stage to record the bridging score with a 27 piece orchestra.  (More photos from the song recording session can be seen in my book.)
Jim Backus, Joan Gardner, Jule Styne, Laura Olsher, Royal Dano, Paul Frees and Walter Scharf
The stage had a hardwood floor which was highly prized for the recording of music and, at over 8000 square feet, was large enough to handle a 60+ member orchestra as well as the addition of choral groups if needed.  It was sought after by many composers, and the songs and score for the Christmas special joined an illustrious list of movie scores recorded at the facility—The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape by Elmer Bernstein, Marnie and Torn Curtain by Bernard Herrmann and both The Wizard of Oz and portions of Gone with The Wind.  Frank Sinatra, who shot The Manchurian Candidate and Guys and Dolls on the lot, recorded The Concert Sinatra album on the stage in 1963.  (Sinatra had his own private bungalow on the lot for 35 years, which still stands today.)  Pictured below are 7of the Oscars awarded to the facility for Best Sound.

By 1972, the scoring stage had fallen into disuse and served as studio storage.   In 1974, a fire on the Sigmund sound stage destroyed that stage as well as several others.  While some of the stages were rebuilt, others were not and the decision was made to convert the former scoring stage into a shooting stage, ripping out the hardwood flooring.  Today, the stage is home to one of the largest cycloramas in Hollywood.  A ‘cyc’, as it’s known in industry jargon, is used primarily for special effects shots in order to avoid the joint where the walls meet the floor and provides a sense of infinity with a concave curve joining the horizontal and vertical planes.

I asked the singer for Young Scrooge, Marie Matthews (pictured above), to reminisce at the facility where she recorded her songs 50 years ago.  We were granted permission to visit the lot and sound stage by studio manager, Dusty Barbee and were guided by Security head, Dave Del Prete, who is also the lot’s unofficial historian.  Much has changed on that stage in 50 years and the presence of the huge white cyclorama which spans the entire length and almost the entire width of the room is overwhelming.  In the shot above, Marie is standing just a few feet in front of where Sinatra is pictured below.  

With the aid of photos taken during Sinatra’s recording session for The Concert Sinatra album, Marie was able to remember that the songs were recorded in the center rear corner of the above photo, where most of the musicians are sitting.  However, due to the position of the cyclorama, we were unable to visit that portion of the stage.  She also recalled that Jim Backus, suffering from a bad back, would close the lid of the grand piano between takes and lie down on it for relief.   As photos from the song session attest, the space didn’t seem nearly as large as it does in the photo above but the stage was neither as brightly nor as fully lit as in this shot, making it seem less imposing.  Recording configurations that no longer exist and the use of sound dampening isolation booths around each of the singers would have also further constricted the space.
Jack Cassidy, Marie Matthews and Joan Gardner rehearsing Lord's Bright Blessing
Marie had not been on the lot since she recorded the songs in 1962 and was delighted to revisit the stage and the facilities.  For me, standing in the room where two of Elmer Bernstein’s most iconic scores were recorded was inspiring but being there with Marie Matthews and knowing that the songs and score for Mr. Magoo’s  Christmas Carol made the moment truly special.   Those songs and score made their debut fifty years ago tonight.  Be sure to catch NBC’s airing of the special on Saturday, December 22nd at 8 PM.  

Darrell Van Citters and Marie Matthews outside Stage 7
Special thanks to Dave Del Prete for taking time out of his busy day to show Marie, her daughter Melinda and me around the stage and lot, Dusty Barbee for allowing us access to the facility and to Heidi Ewart for making the arrangements.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol soundtrack

As part of the 50th anniversary edition of the book, I had proposed including a soundtrack which was to have featured the film’s song score, Styne & Merrill’s demo recordings of their tunes and Walter Scharf’s underscore.  The idea was well received and Classic Media was on board so I  built the book around this proposal.  The songs had been released on iTunes back in 2010 and the long lost Overture had been discovered, too, so it seemed like the project would fall into place and finally, the long awaited original film soundtrack would be released, 50 years after the film had made its debut.  

Unfortunately, when the digging really began in earnest, it was discovered that the only musical material that existed in the vaults were the previously released songs and Overture.  For those with an attuned ear, it’s clear that the iTunes-released songs are from the original recording session; the final standalone versions of the songs cannot be located.  Equally disappointing, the score didn’t exist in any form whatsoever; not the original scoring session takes, not as a standalone score, not even as a mixed music and sound effects track commonly used for foreign language dubbing.

It was, and is, a major disappointment.  What seems likely is that the elements are mislabeled or filed incorrectly in the vault.  According to a former executive at UPA, the elements were delivered when the assets were purchased.  At some point in the future, when the missing elements are located, the intent is to still release an original soundtrack.  Until that day, we’ll have to content ourselves with the track that currently exists on the DVD releases.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Bob Singer, background painter

In a post from several years ago, I profiled Bob Singer, one of the production designers on Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, who laid out several key areas of the film including the prologue on Broadway and the opening sequence in Scrooge’s office.  In his capacity as a layout artist, he was responsible for drawing the characters and their environments but had nothing to do with how they were interpreted in color.  However, prior to joining UPA, Bob was employed at Warner Bros. Cartoons as a background painter.  He did most of his painting in Bob McKimson’s unit but would occasionally swing into action doing both paintings and layouts for other directors, like Chuck Jones and Abe Levitow.  He was about to become Friz Freleng’s layout man when UPA offered him more money.

During my consultation for I Say, I Say... Son!, the book on Looney Tunes director Bob McKimson, I reviewed a number of Foghorn cartoons and came across one featuring Singer’s work as a background painter.  Below are some frames from the cartoon, Crockett Doodle Doo, highlighting Singer’s sense of color, with layouts by animation legend, Bob Givens.  Click on each image to enlarge it:

You can see the complete cartoon here but if you want to see a nice print where you can fully appreciate the color and design work, order it here.

Monday, November 12, 2012

New book on Bob McKimson!

I wanted to let all my readers know that there's a new tome out on Robert McKimson, probably the most overlooked of the main Looney Tunes directors.  The book, I Say, I Say...Son!, written by his son, Robert Jr., tells the story of not only his father’s life and career but also covers the stories of his uncles, Tom and Charles, both of whom were also deeply involved in Warner Bros. Cartoons.  Tom was a layout man and character designer in Bob Clampett’s unit, the first person to draw Tweety Bird and Beaky Buzzard and Chuck animated on many of his brother’s cartoons through the late 40s and into the early 50s.

Under Bob’s direction, the world was introduced to Foghorn Leghorn and the Tasmanian Devil, both integral parts of the Looney Tunes pantheon.  Bob was an amazing draftsman but, by all accounts, was also a quiet and unassuming man and consequently lost many of the political battles waged by other directors.  He often ended up with castoff talent, artists that other directors maneuvered out of their units, yet many of his cartoons are viewed as classics to this day.  Hillbilly Hare with its violent square dance routine (inspired by the cartoon studio’s embrace of square dancing by a large portion of its staff), Rabbit’s Kin (the introduction of Pete Puma with Stan Freberg’s unforgettable vocal characterization) and Little Boy Boo (with the silent but methodical Egghead Jr., the perfect foil for Foghorn Leghorn’s incessant jabbering) as well as many others. 

While the book has the requisite limited edition images, created from images drawn by Bob before his untimely death in 1977, it’s also chock full of great vintage art, most of which has never been seen before-animation drawings from some of Bob Clampett’s films, character layouts for a number of Bob McKimson’s own cartoons and even his lobby card drawings, done to help publicize his films in theaters.  There’s even a section on Tom McKimson featuring art from his Western Publishing days.  Even if you’re familiar with the history of Warner Bros. cartoon studio, there is still much to be gleaned from the text (like how Bob became such a prolific animator, doing 2-3 times as much footage as any other animator in house).  I think it’s worth picking up just for both the art and the history of the brothers.  However, in the interests of full disclosure, I was asked to consult on the book as well as write an introduction for it. You can buy it here.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol back on NBC!

Classic Media informs me that NBC, the original broadcaster for Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol, will be showing the special during prime time on Dec. 22 at 8 PM in honor of its 50th anniversary.  Much has changed on television since 1962 and one thing is length.  A broadcast hour then was 52 minutes with the balance being taken up by commercials.  A broadcast hour today is 44 minutes so expect to see some cuts made in the story, perhaps the absence of a song as well.  However, it's nice to see a national broadcaster revive the special after so many years of its absence from the air.  Thank you Classic Media and NBC!

Monday, November 5, 2012

The 50th Anniversary Edition is here!

It's finally here!  Pictured above is the 50th anniversary collector's edition of Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol, The Making of the First Animated Christmas Special.  For those wondering if they should order this edition, I've decided to answer a few questions on how and why this book came about. 

 Why a 50th anniversary edition of a book that's been out for several years? 

When I first published the book in 2009, I had proposed doing a special edition for the 50th anniversary in 2012 figuring it was several years away.  The first book did better than anyone expected and sold out quickly.  It wasn't in my plans but due to demand, I decided to do a second run with corrections inserted wherever I could.  That edition is on the verge of selling out now. 

In October of last year, a good friend asked me if I was still going to do a 50th book.  I told him it was time to move on but he made it clear he felt something needed to be done to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the special and this might be the only thing to happen.  Not only that, he was willing to put his money where his mouth was.  Although touched, I still wasn't completely convinced.  It was only after I mentioned it to several other interested parties who were also willing to support the project that I agreed to do it.

Isn't this just a ploy to sell the same book three times over?

I'm not that smart.  This is not a money-making venture.  If it weren't for the 'angel investors' mentioned above, this book wouldn't exist.  Those 'angels' have to be paid back from the proceeds of book sales, not an easy task when the print run is so low.  Also, as I mentioned above, there was never supposed to be a second printing and although this edition uses the same format as the previous ones, it has been thoroughly revised and expanded.  It is no easy job to tear apart a book, insert hundreds of images and add text without destroying the narrative and then stitch it all back together. 

Then what's different about this edition as opposed to the previous printings?

 As I mentioned in a previous post, the book has been expanded to 176 pages from the original 128.  There are close to twice as many illustrations now, 435 vs. the original 232, which include: photos which were eliminated from the previous editions due to space restrictions, frames from the re-mastered film when no art could be found to reflect the text, discarded art from deleted sequences which give a glimpse into the production process and a large amount of new production art, most of which was discovered since the last printing.  I had hoped to include some images from Ronald Searle’s illustrations of "A Christmas Carol", showing the influence he had on this production, but the Searle attorneys were dismissive.  Fortunately, Timex was far more cooperative and there are some frames from the original opening credits.  

The book features heavier board and paper stock, printed endpapers, cloth binding in a cloth bound slipcase with gold foil stamping and limited to 250 numbered copies.  

Can I buy this at my local bookstore or on Amazon?

Yes and no.  Book retailers have an unfortunate habit of damaging books somewhere along the supply line; the publisher has to bear the cost of shipping the book to the distributor, having it become damaged and therefore no longer sell-able, and then paying to have the book shipped back.  It makes no sense on a premium book like this to risk that kind of damage and expense.  Although I may make the book available on Amazon, regardless of where you buy it, here or there, it will be coming from me.  It will not be available at your local bookstore.

If you want to order the book, you can get it here.  It's the definitive edition and when it's gone, it's gone.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Recording of Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol, Pt. 1

In readying the 50th anniversary edition of the book, I did a little more research into the facilities where Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol was recorded-the dialogue, the songs and the score.  In the first edition, I had chased all that information down, even to looking for the vaults where the recorded material might have been stored.  This time I was more interested in the recording facilities themselves and briefly considered adding images of the studios to the book while providing a little more history on the places.  Unfortunately, inserting this material proved disruptive to the narrative flow of the book so I decided to post it on the blog.

Altec Lansing crew, ca. 1944
The dialogue recording sessions were done at 1161 Vine Street in Hollywood at Ryder Sound Services.  Prior to serving as a recording and post-production studio for Ryder, the facility was the Hollywood headquarters of Altec Lansing, a pioneer in the field of recorded sound with an impressive list of accomplishments in the industry.  However, they were best known for providing and servicing sound systems for motion picture theaters.  They also helped promote professional quality sound systems for home use or, as it was known during the 50s, hi-fi.

Photo from 2009, facade has since been covered by vegetation.
Loren Ryder took over the facility after leaving his job at Paramount after a 20 year association.  Ryder, was a true engineering pioneer in the field of motion picture sound, helping to develop and usher in the era of magnetic tape.  Along the way, he won 5 Academy Awards for his work in motion pictures.  He had started his own business in 1948 but continued to work for Paramount until 1957 when he left for good.  Ryder’s reputation made the facility a highly regarded one, and his operation was kept busy by the then burgeoning business of TV production.  For decades, this building was home to entertainment sound engineering history.

Although UPA had a recording studio, as with many of the pre-production aspects of Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol, Orgel went for the best, booking his dialogue sessions at Ryder Sound Services.  The late Laura Olsher recalled that between the day's sessions, the actors went upstairs for lunch at a place called The Grapevine.  I have not been able to find corroborating information regarding the restaurant but I have no reason to doubt her memory.  A real estate listing from a few years ago shows a loft, which would have been the eatery in its heyday.

At the time of the recording sessions, the building still retained its old LA charm.  Since then, it has seen a a variety of uses, and has lost some of its original appeal, being painted a deep red with vegetation allowed to obscure its fa├žade.  It’s currently home to Stereo D, a provider of 3D conversion services to the motion picture industry.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Mr. Magoo's stock pose

Ever wonder where this overused pose of Magoo came from?  It’s from a 1956 Rheingold beer ad:

Monday, October 8, 2012

Mr. Magoo and Rheingold beer

In a post last year, I discussed Magoo and his shilling for two different beers, Rheingold and Stag.  A few of the Stag spots have survived over the last 50+ years and can be found on various DVD commercial collections and on Youtube.  However, the Rheingold spots have yet to materialize in their full form as commercials.  We can get a little peak at what one of them looked like from some recently discovered storyboards, thumbnails presumed to be drawn by Magoo director, Pete Burness.  Click on each image to see it larger:

Thursday, October 4, 2012

David Weidman show in LA

Followers of this blog will recognize the name David Weidman as one of the background painters on Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol.  David will be having a showing of his stunning serigraphs tomorrow evening at The Animation Guild at 1105 N Hollywood Way in Burbank.  If you're in Los Angeles, it's definitely worth your time to stop by and meet David in person and check out his work.  If you would like to read more about David and his work on Christmas Carol, follow this link.  If you would like to order a book featuring his serigraphs, try this link.  And if you can't make the event but would still like to buy a print, go here.  Hope to see you there!