One half of the celebrated animation production company Rankin/Bass, Jules Bass produced, directed and wrote music for some of the longest-running, universally adored animated holiday specials, including "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (NBC, 1964) and "Frosty the Snowman" (CBS, 1969), as well as "The Hobbit" (NBC, 1977) and weekly series like "ThunderCats" (syndicated, 1985-89). Rankin/Bass's stop-motion "Animagic" process imbued their efforts with a level of wonder and technical finesse that was underscored by the charm and genuine warmth of their stories, which often surpassed the fabricated emotions of bigger-budgeted studio and network efforts. Rankin/Bass produced an enormous array of animated projects between 1964 and 1987, as well as several live-action features and TV films, though none of these were held in the same regard as their holiday specials, which became an essential part of the season itself through yearly screenings. Jules Bass' best work with Arthur Rankin, Jr. was not unlike the holiday itself: magical, moving and altogether memorable.
Born Sept. 16, 1935 in Philadelphia, PA, Jules Bass studied at New York University before landing his first job in the mailroom at the Gardner Advertising Agency. Among its clients was a former art director for ABC Television named Arthur Rankin, Jr., who had formed his own production company with the intent of making commercials for television. Though Bass quickly worked his way up the ladder at Gardner, he sought a more creative outlet for his talents and in 1955, forged a partnership with Rankin that resulted in a new company, Videocraft International, through which they sought to produce television commercials, animated television programs, and feature-length films. Its first televised effort was "The New Adventures of Pinocchio" (syndicated, 1960-61). The children's program was highlighted by a stop-motion animation process called Animagic, though Videocraft would also produce traditional cel animation series like "Tales of the Wizard of Oz" (syndicated, 1960-61).
After changing its name to Rankin/Bass Productions in 1961, the company would earn its breakout project with "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (1964), a one-hour special for NBC and its sponsor/owner, General Electric. The stop-motion project, which featured the voice of Oscar winner Burl Ives as a grandfatherly snowman and original songs by Johnny Marks, featured all the hallmarks that would come to define Rankin/Bass holiday specials in subsequent years: high-profile voiceover actors, an abundant score, exceptional animation and, most importantly, a genuine warmth to the story that helped to endear their work to generations of children.
The success of "Rudolph," which would air annually during the holiday season for the next four decades, led to a slew of animated projects for Rankin/Bass. They produced numerous weekly cartoons, including "The Beatles" (ABC, 1965-66), a broadly comic take on the Fab Four, and "The King Kong Show" (ABC, 1966-69), a joint effort between Rankin/Bass and Japan's Toei Animation, as well as feature-length animated films like "Willy McBean and his Magic Machine" (1965) and "The Daydreamer" (1966), which featured an all-star vocal cast that included Tallulah Bankhead, Boris Karloff and Ray Bolger. But their best-known and best-loved work remained their holiday specials, which soon included the traditionally animated "Frosty the Snowman" (1969), with Jimmy Durante; "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" (ABC, 1970), with Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney and Keenan Wynn; and "The Year without a Santa Claus" (ABC, 1974), with Rooney, Oscar winner Shirley Booth and the voices of George S. Irving and Dick Shawn as the brawling Heat Miser and Snow Miser, sons of Mother Nature and two of Rankin/Bass' most enduring original creations. For these and countless other productions, the duo frequently split directing and producing credits, though Bass received sole directorial credit on "Mad Monster Party" (1967), a theatrical animation project based around Universal Studios' stable of screen monsters, as well as for "The Daydreamer."
Bass' most significant contribution outside of his producing and directing duties was as composer and songwriter on many of their holiday specials. With the company's regular composer-conductor Maury Laws, Bass penned lyrics for the Snow Miser and Heat Miser's themes, easily the most show-stopping original tunes from any Rankin/Bass production, as well as songs for "Mad Monster Party" and "The Easter Bunny is Comin' to Town" (ABC, 1977), among many others, as well as the score for episodes of the "King Kong Show" and other weekly series. Rankin/Bass continued to produce yearly holiday specials into the mid-1980s, though with diminishing returns. They began diversifying their output in the 1970s, balancing the Christmas projects with weekly series based on "The Jackson 5ive" (ABC, 1971-74) and "The Osmonds" (ABC, 1972), while also producing occasional live-action features for television, including "The Last Dinosaur" (ABC, 1977) and "The Bermuda Depths" (ABC, 1978), which featured special effects by Tsuburaya Productions, the company that had produced the suitmation creatures for Toho's Godzilla franchise.
More successful was their Peabody Award-winning attempt to adapt J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" (1977), which featured John Huston, Richard Boone, Otto Preminger and Cyril Ritchard among its voice cast, and was soon followed by "The Return of the King" (ABC, 1980), a streamlined adaptation of the third book in Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Efforts to capture the success of these projects, including the theatrically released "Last Unicorn" (1982) and "The Flight of Dragons" (ABC, 1986), were largely ignored, though Rankin/Bass would enjoy late-inning popularity with the weekly animated series "ThunderCats." By 1987, the company shut down its production arm and sold off its library, which passed through several corporate hands, including Lorne Michaels' Broadway Video, whose children's division became Golden Books Family Entertainment and later Classic Media; Studio Canal; DreamWorks Animation, which eventually retained ownership of the pre-1974 titles and Warner Bros. Television, which took possession of projects made between 1974 and 1987.
Rankin briefly revived the company in 1999, though without Bass, who had retired from production to concentrate on a career in writing fiction. He penned his first book for children, titled Herb, the Vegetarian Dragon, in 1999, which hewed closely to the plots of many Rankin/Bass projects in its story of a dragon who found himself excluded from his kind for his decision to forgo meat in favor of fruits and vegetables. A vegetarian cookbook featuring Herb preceded his first novel for adults, a comic caper called Headhunters (2001). The novel was adapted for the screen in 2011 as the romantic comedy "Monte Carlo," which changed its core characters - a group of middle-aged New Jersey suburbanites who posed as jet-setters in Europe - to a trio of younger women led by Selena Gomez.
By Paul Gaita