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55 Years Ago, A Classic Was Born

By Walker Joyce

Once upon a time, when the nation was far less fragmented, the media much smaller and no controversy attached to Christmas, a cartoon version of an immortal Charles Dickens story debuted on NBC. The year was 1962. JFK was in the White House, Viet Nam was a place barely known to the public, and the craziness and upheaval we associate with that decade had not yet begun.

Onto this tranquil scene appeared Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, “freely adapted” from the novella. It featured one of the few “human” animated characters of the time, the nearsighted (and proud Rutgers alum) Quincy Magoo.

Framed as a Broadway production of the story, Magoo was an actor playing the role of Scrooge. It featured a wonderful score by two masters of the musical theatre, Jule Styne and Bob Merrill. The former had already gained fame as the composer of hits like High Button Shoes, Peter Pan and Gypsy, and the latter was the highly-regarded lyricist/songwriter who’d written Take Me Along and Carnival. Later on, the duo would team up on Funny Girl, which launched Barbra Streisand’s career.

Styne and Merrill were at the top of their game. It would be like hiring Andrew Lloyd Webber, Stephen Sondheim or Lin-Manuel Miranda to contribute cartoon songs today. I doubt these or any other award-winning tunesmith could be recruited for a kids’ TV show now: aside from the format, a famous musician would simply cost too much.

As to the source material, I’ve always regarded A CHRISTMAS CAROL as the greatest short story of all time—excepting perhaps the parable of the Prodigal Son.

I was in 3rd grade when the show premiered. Sadly, I’m told that Carol is too Christian to be part of that curriculum today!

But back in ’62 it was not only considered mainstream, it began a delightful string of beloved classics like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966) and Frosty the Snowman (1969). These have been repeated for decades, right up to the present.

If you’re looking for a way to introduce Dickens and this story to a youngster, you can’t beat the Magoo adaptation. It contains all the main plot points, it’s not at all dumbed down—much of the dialogue is taken verbatim from the book—and the main character and all the other figures are completely child-friendly, and leavened with humor.

The cast is first-rate. Jim Backus, who would reach TV immortality again as Thurston Howell on Gilligan’s Island, stars as Magoo/Scrooge, Jack Cassidy (Shirley Jones’ hubby and David’s Dad) is a tender Bob Cratchit, Royal Dano, a great character actor who seemingly appeared in every western, is a spooky Marley, and Morey Amsterdam from The Dick Van Dyke Show adds a few bits.

Best of all are the songs, for the score (as you might expect) is Broadway-caliber.

It includes “Ringle, Ringle,” Scrooge’s coin-counting anthem, sung in counterpoint to Bob’s plea for more coal in the office stove, “The Lord’s Bright Blessing,” a charming, up-tempo grace prayer at the Cratchit’s meager dinner table, “Winter Was Warm,” a gorgeous love song which should’ve been a Top Ten hit, and the hilarious “Plunderer’s March (We’re Despicable),” in which a trio of thieves cavort at a seedy pawn shop.

I’ve long thought the cartoon would work in a theatre. Alas, the one year I planned to do it live, I couldn’t get the rights. To this day, the only time it’s been done onstage was during a one-night benefit for The Actors’ Fund charity. But I had the idea first!

Happily, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol lives on in occasional broadcasts, via tapes and discs and on YouTube. If you haven’t seen it in a while, or you’ve somehow missed it, treat yourself this December.