By Laurence Lerman / New York City
Jules Bass made it possible for a nice Jewish boy in the suburbs of Jersey by way of Brooklyn to learn all about the legends of Christmas. To take in the tales of Santa Claus, his reindeer, his workshop and his elves.
Of course, I’m talking about Bass’ Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the venerable 1964 stop motion animated Christmas special produced by the team of Arthur Rankin Jr. and Bass, whose Rankin/Bass Productions was also behind such time-honored holiday specials as 1969’s Frosty the Snowman (featuring the voices of comedians Jackie Vernon and Jimmy Durante) and 1970’s Santa Claus is Coming to Town (with Fred Astaire). The three programs remain annual television staples.
Jules Bass died of an age-related illness on Tuesday, October 25, at an assisted living facility in Rye, New York. He was 87.
My favorite character in Rudolph was Hermey, the adorable blonde misfit elf who runs away from Santa’s workshop because he wants to be dentist. You remember him, right? He hooks up with a vagabond reindeer sporting a glowing crimson proboscis, and eventually returns home with the Abominable Snowman in tow, a once terrifying beast who is tamed after Hermey performs an emergency dental extraction on him.
Hermey was a creation of the Philadelphia-born Bass, who attended New York University and worked at an advertising agency before meeting Arthur Rankin, Jr., an art director at ABC TV in 1955. The two formed a team and initially made television commercials, with Bass primarily serving as a writer, composer and lyricist and Rankin taking on the more artistic duties.
The two moved into moved into TV and movies, launching their production house Videocraft International in 1960. Specializing in animated programs with a focus on stop motion techniques, they released their first syndicated television series, The New Adventures of Pinocchio, the same year. The series consisted of 130 ambitious five-minute chapters, which were then pieced together and distributed as five-chapter, 25-minute episodes.
Pinocchio was very well-received and the two ambitious creators renamed their company Rankin/Bass Productions before diving into an ambitious slate of programming, which began with Rudoph and continued to feed a growing demand for family-styled holiday entertainment.
Bass reportedly took the lead on the scripting and also wrote the lyrics for the majority of the songs in the programs he and Rankin created, under both his own name and the pseudonym Julian P. Gardner. With his musical collaborator Maury Laws, Bass penned plucky, earworm-y tunes that were performed by such talents as Danny Kaye, Mickey Rooney, Ed Wynn, Patty Duke, Ray Bolger, Shirley Booth, Phyllis Diller and the Vienna Boys Choir.
Bass and Rankin’s other notable TV projects during their heyday include The Ballad of Smokey the Bear (1966), The Wacky World of Mother Goose (1967), The Little Drummer Boy (1968), the Easter special Here Comes Peter Cottontail (1967), the creature-feature musical Mad Monster Party (1967), The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974), the feature film The Last Unicorn (1982) and Silverhawks (1986).
Bass and Rankin’s offerings occasionally extended beyond the gentler, family-oriented holiday programming for which they were best known. Their 1970 animated TV movie The Mad, Mad, Mad Comedians featuring voiceover work by comics George Burns, Flip Wilson, Groucho Marks, and the Smothers Brothers appealed to a distinctly older audience, while their music-filled adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1977) and The Return of the King (1980) also clicked with a slightly older audience. (The Hobbit won a Peabody Award).
Bass retired to France in the late Eighties and, a decade later, wrote two children’s books, Herb, The Vegetarian Dragon (1999) and a companion cookbook for kids, Cooking With Herb, The Vegetarian Dragon. He also penned the 2001 novel Headhunters which was adapted for the 2011 film Monte Carlo starring Selena Gomez.
Rankin died in 2014 at the age of 89 and now Bass, the name on the right side of the slash, is gone. But put on your TV in December and you’ll be confident that their indelible, delightful and timeless work isn’t going anywhere.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.