Following the success of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in 1964, Rankin/Bass made the decision to make more holiday specials. However, it wouldn't be until three years later that their second Christmas special would be produced.
Cricket on the Hearth
December 18, 1967
The Cricket on the Hearth was a novella written by Charles Dickens, written and published in 1845. It was the third of five annual Christmas books he wrote, following “A Christmas Carol” two years earlier. In 1967, Rankin/Bass made an animated adaptation to air on NBC.
Cricket Crockett, a talking British cricket, tells the story about how he was invited by a toymaker named Caleb Plummer to live within his home. Upon entering the home, he overhears the toymaker’s daughter Bertha crying, having to say goodbye to her fiancee Edward, a naval officer who is called back out to sea.
A year and a half passes, near Christmas time, Bertha’s heart is still sadden by Edward’s absence, but is happy thinking about the day he’ll return. However, one day close to Christmas, a man named Jeremiah Bleak stops by on behalf of the Queen to inform Bertha that Edward has been lost at sea. The shock and grief of the message sends Bertha into a pitfall of despair, and as a result, she goes blind.
Caleb stops producing his toys and turns to nursing his daughter, spending all his money on doctors who had no solution and taking out loans he had no way of paying. At rock bottom, Caleb closes up his shop, and goes looking for a job. Due to his age, no place will hire him, and he begins to consider living at the poor house.
However, Cricket encourages him to keep looking, and points out a toy factory they walk past that is looking for workers. Caleb gets the job, but his boss, Mr. Tackleton, is a greedy man who makes Caleb work for free in exchange for shelter at a rundown single-room house and table scraps to eat. He is also a cheapskate, closely monitoring Caleb’s work to make sure he doesn’t use more than the bare minimum of supplies. Caleb and Cricket often sneak into the store at night and do additional work on the toys, just to make sure they’re of presentable quality.
Two days before Christmas, Caleb bumps into a peculiar homeless man. Feeling pity, he invites the man back to their home to stay with them for a while. During dinner, Bertha asks her father if they’ll have all the usual Christmas items. Caleb, who had been stretching the truth about their situation, is reluctant to lie when it comes Christmas, but relents, not wanting to see her sad.
On Christmas Eve, Mr. Tackleton makes the suggestion that he marry Bertha. Bertha, who isn’t aware of Tackleton’s true nature and appearance, is flattered and decides she will. The old homeless man has something to tell her, but is saddened and leaves when he hears the news. Likewise, Caleb is also saddened, and Cricket hatches a plan to stop Bertha from ever saying yes to Tackleton.
With help from some friends, Cricket interrupts the acceptance from happening by putting pepper in Tackleton’s tea, sending him sneezing out of the room. Tackleton’s pet bird Caw is sent out to get professional help in eliminating the cricket, and comes back with two goons he knows from the animal underworld. They snatch Cricket while he’s relaxing in his chair, and bring him to a sea captain who sells crickets to China. The sea captain then kills the trio, and the ship sets sail.
Pretending to be dead himself, the sea captain eventually tosses Cricket overboard. This then leads to a series of animals coming to his rescue, including a whale, a pelican, a swordfish, and some seahorses, until he once more reaches land.
Cricket arrives back at the toy factory on midnight; because it’s Christmas Eve, the toys in the factory begin to come to life. Cricket begs for their help to stop the wedding from going through, and they agree, wanting to do anything to help Caleb and Bertha. They reveal that the “old” homeless man is really Bertha’s old love Edward, who was stranded on an island and rescued by a whaler, finally making his way back to England after two years. He disguised himself, feeling that he was responsible for Bertha going blind, and to see if she still loved him; after he saw Bertha so happy from the proposal, he had given up, but Cricket convinces him there’s still time.
Cricket wakes Bertha up and brings Edward in, finally reuniting two lovers. The following morning, Bertha marries Edward instead. Mr. Tackleton is initially furious, but after being given some encouraging words by Bertha, he is happy that at least one person thinks he is a good man.
The special was hosted by actor-comedian Danny Thomas in live-action segments at the start and end. Danny Thomas also played Caleb Plummer, with his real life daughter Marlo Thomas voicing Bertha, Ed Ames voicing Edward, Hans Conreid voicing Tackleton and the titular cricket voiced by actor Roddy McDowall. Additionally, voice actor Paul Frees, whose previous voice acting roles included Boris Badenov in Rocky & Bullwinkle, voices Caw and the Sea Captain. Singing was provided by the Norman Luboff Choir.
In terms of the production side, it was standard fare for Rankin/Bass. The script was written by Romeo Muller and Arthur Rankin, and directed by Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass. The music composed by Maury Laws, with lyrics by Jules Bass and singing from the Norman Luboff Chorus. Production was additionally handled by Thomas/Spelling Productions.
One last notable thing is that this was the first special after Videocraft officially changed its name to Rankin/Bass, and as such uses the Rankin/Bass logo for the first time. For legal reasons, a byline crediting Videocraft International would remain on Rankin/Bass productions until the early 70’s.
The Little Drummer Boy
December 19, 1968
In 1941, composer Katherine Kennicott Davis wrote the song “Carol of the Drum”, based on a traditional Czech carol. By the time it was finally recorded in 1955 by the Trapp Family Singers, it was known as “The Little Drummer Boy”. In 1958, the song would become widespread thanks to a recording by the Harry Simeone Chorale, this recording appearing on the US music charts every year around Christmas from 1958 to 1962.
Ten years after the song first gained popularity, Rankin/Bass decided to make an adaptation of the song, similar to how they previously turned another popular song into a beloved special in Rudolph. Around one year after Cricket on the Hearth premiered, Rankin/Bass had their next holiday special ready, returning to the stop-motion style.
The Little Drummer Boy opens with a large number of people migrating through the desert to their hometowns in order to be taxed. Among them is a boy with a drum, named Aaron, leading a parade of dancing farm animals. A man named Ben Haramed and his assistant Ali see the sight and try to kidnap the drummer boy, determined to make him part of their travelling caravan.
In a flashback, Aaron’s past is shown, how his parents gave him his drum as a gift. One night, bandits destroyed his family’s farm and killed his parents, leading the boy to hate humans.
In the city of Jerusalem, Haramed sets up his show for the crowds. After an unimpressive acrobatics act and a terrible juggling act, the people are greatly unimpressed and begin to dissipate. Then Aaron goes on with a painted smile on his face, drumming and singing for them; the crowds are pleased, but this only makes the boy angrier. He begins to curse at the people of Jerusalem, until the caravan is chased out of town.
On the outskirts of the city, Haramed spots another caravan, this of three kings watching a shining star in the sky. He approaches them in hopes of earning a large amount of money for performing to them, but as night falls, the three kings are on the move in the direction of the star. However, one of their camels collapses, so Haramed quickly sells Aaron’s camel Joshua to them for a hefty sum. Haramed lets Aaron go, having no need of him, and the boy begins a journey to find his friend.
While he loses track of the caravan of the three kings, Aaron begins to follow the star as well. He eventually reaches the town of Bethlehem, at the same time as several groups of shepherds. Within the city, just as he finds his camel a chariot drives by and strikes Aaron’s lamb Baba, gravely injuring it. The boy approaches a large crowd of the shepherds that have gathered around a stable, and asks one of the kings to help. The king replies that he can do nothing, but he knows of one who can help: the baby in the manger they have all gathered to meet.
Aaron approaches the manger, awed by the sight. He begins to play for the baby; thanks to his gift given out of love, the lamb is healed and Aaron realizes he was wrong to have such hatred for humanity.
The special was narrated by actress Greer Garson, with child actor Teddy Eccles as Aaron and Puerto Rican actor José Ferrer as Ben Haramad. June Foray briefly voices Aaron’s mother, with Paul Frees as everyone else.
Like Cricket on the Hearth, the Little Drummer Boy was written by Romeo Muller and directed by Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass, with music by Maury Laws and lyrics by Jules Bass (for the new songs). Also like Cricket on the Hearth, a choir was used to sing the titular song, this time being the Vienna Boys Choir.
While Cricket on the Hearth didn’t make much of a splash, The Little Drummer Boy has become one of Rankin/Bass’s enduring specials, continuing to air every year as a mainstay alongside their other Christmas classics.