By Tom Ward
Pop Culture Contributor
Back in 1966 on Thanksgiving Day, NBC’s General Electric Fantasy Hour aired the classic Rankin/Bass TV special “The Ballad of Smokey the Bear” for the first time, starring James Cagney as the voice of Big Bear (Smokey’s brother). According to my friend Rick Goldschmidt, who’s the official Historian/Biographer of Rankin/Bass, this airing coincided with the first appearance of the Smokey the Bear balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to promote the special.
“It was the third and last special that producers Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass made for the NBC Color Fantasy Hour,” said Goldschmidt. “The first one was ‘Return to Oz’, which was really the first TV sequel to the classic MGM film, and then their ground-breaking Animagic TV special, ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’, was the second special. ‘Rudolph’ has gone on to become the longest-running, highest-rated television special of all-time!”
“Smokey” aired November 24, 1966 and hasn’t been seen much since.
“Arthur had to go to the government to obtain the rights to the character and there were some restrictions placed on the story,” explained Goldschmidt. “The government wanted the special to teach kids about the value of preserving the forest and teaching ecology. In doing so, the special sort of plays down to small children, unlike the way ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ was written by Romeo Muller. President Lyndon Johnson really wanted to see James Cagney as the narrator, as he was a huge fan.
“When Arthur approached Cagney, he said, ‘Get me a letter from the President!’ which is what Arthur ended up doing,” he added. “Later Cagney said, ‘I knew your mother, your aunt, etc.’ Arthur’s family came out of vaudeville and the entertainment industry and Cagney joked, as if he put him through the trouble of getting the letter as a prank.” While it hasn’t aired on television much, Goldschmidt told me that he makes it available on DVD for the fans to see via his website.
Earlier this month, Goldschmidt was surprised at the NTX North Dallas Comic Book Show with a visit from the original Animagic figure/puppet of Smokey the Bear. Smokey belongs in his friend Gary Busk’s collection. Busk lives here in North Texas.
“He (Smokey) has stayed in amazingly good shape through the years, even with a break of wire in each arm,” said Goldschmidt. “He is still able to articulate in movement as he did on screen fifty years ago.”
Goldschmidt told me that only about a dozen of the original puppets from the numerous TV specials have survived in the United States, of those of which he knows the whereabouts.
“These Animagic figures were not made to last as collectibles,” says Goldschmidt. “They were made in Japan by people with exceptional talent, to last through a production, which took about 18 months to do, if it was a one hour special as ‘Smokey’ was.
“On September 13, 1969, Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass continued their association with Smokey the Bear, with ‘The Smokey Bear Show’, which aired on ABC TV,” continued Goldschmidt. “It was a cel-animated series that got on the air with the help of former Disney president Michael Eisner and featured the voice of Jackson Weaver, who was the voice of Smokey in TV commercials for many years. There was a segment in each show that featured Smokey as a cub, and this version of Smokey was voiced by Billie Mae Richards, who was better known as the voice of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
This year will see the 20th Anniversary Edition of The Enchanted World of Rankin/Bass: A Portfolio, which is Goldschmidt’s first coffee table book, celebrating the work of Rankin/Bass Productions. Goldschmidt told me that his book is now well over 300 pages long and features all sorts of rare images and art work, much in color now for the first time!
“The book has sold out of several printings and become quite the collector’s item,” said Goldschmidt. “First printings are found anywhere from $200 to $600 and this version trumps the original edition by far. It should be out by Thanksgiving 2016 and features many new images of ‘Smokey the Bear’ and such Rankin/Bass classics as ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’, ‘Frosty the Snowman’, ‘Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town’, ‘The Hobbit’, ‘Thundercats’, ‘The Little Drummer Boy’, ‘The Mouse on the Mayflower’ and so much more!”
Go to www.miserbros.com to order your copy today. While you’re at his site check out all the great gift items Goldschmidt has available for sale.