BY CARY GINELL
Christmas season brings an abundance of seasonal musical entertainment, programs and movies that have been become traditional in American households. Broadcasts of movies such as “Holiday Inn,” “White Christmas” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” have long been staples for December viewing, as have animated specials like “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “Frosty the Snowman.” But there was one program that, once upon a time, was as eagerly looked forward to as any of the others, yet today, it has been all but forgotten. I’m speaking of “Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol.”
For those too young to remember, Quincy Magoo was a character created by the UPA (United Productions of America) animation studios in 1949. Magoo would never see the light of day in today’s politically correct world, for he was extremely nearsighted, with most of the situations in Magoo cartoons playing off that handicap. Magoo was the kind of character who could walk through a room during an earthquake, oblivious to what was going on, with objects falling to the right and to the left of him, and emerge unscathed. Although sweet and lovable, Magoo wreaked havoc wherever he went, but never had a clue as to the disasters he incurred.
In 1961, UPA Director of Program Development Lee Orgel got the idea of starring Magoo as Ebenezer Scrooge in an animated retelling of Charles Dickens’ familiar short story of redemption and family. Since the character of Mr. Magoo was not in any way as nasty as Scrooge was at the outset of the story, Orgel decided to make the story a show-within-a-show, in which Magoo would be playing the role of Scrooge in a local production of “A Christmas Carol.” He proposed the idea to NBC as a holiday special and the deal was set, with one twist: Orgel wanted to adapt the story for a Broadway-style musical.
To write the songs for his animated version of “A Christmas Carol,” Orgel aimed high – he submitted his idea first to Richard Rodgers and then to Frank Loesser, who both turned him down. He then approached composer Jule Styne, then riding high with his score for “Gypsy,” which was then one of the hottest tickets on Broadway. Styne accepted the challenge and brought in lyricist Bob Merrill, whom he was working with on a new show called “Funny Girl,” to write the words.
Production began in the spring of 1962 with Jim Backus, the longtime voice of Mr. Magoo (later to become famous to baby boomers as Thurston Howell III in “Gilligan’s Island”) leading a stellar cast of prominent Broadway, television, and radio artists to voice the other characters in the show. The supporting players included Jack Cassidy, Royal Dano, Paul Frees, Morey Amsterdam, Joan Gardner, Jane Kean, Les Tremayne, Marie Matthews, and Laura Olsher.
Although the show’s credits state that the story was “freely adapted” from Dickens’ work, the dialogue, scenes, and characterizations were remarkably faithful to the original. Styne and Merrill’s songs were touchingly beautiful and perfectly oriented to character development, just as in a regular Broadway musical.
After its premiere on December 18, 1962, “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol” received universal raves from critics. The Philadelphia Inquirer said that the show “succeeded in generating more warmth and sentiment than have flesh-and-blood actors in several previous TV ‘Christmas Carols.’” Others proclaimed Orgel a genius for converting the classic into a musical, and congratulated him for landing the esteemed team of Styne and Merrill to write the songs. The special became a Christmas tradition from the 1960s through the 1980s before it was finally released for home consumption in 1994. Not only was it a big hit, it was also the first animated Christmas special, preceding “A Charlie Brown Christmas” by three years.
If you’ve never seen “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol,” you owe it to yourself to get a copy of the DVD this holiday season. It might even become a tradition in your own household, as it is in ours.