BROOKE GLADSTONE: Christmas is here, and some will dine on Who pudding and rare roast beast. If you haven't a clue what I'm talking about, then it's been a while since you've seen Dr. Zeuss' classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas. [SONG]: Trim up the tree with Christmas stuff like bingle balls and whofoo fluff, trim up the tree with goowho gums and blizblix and wums! [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BROOKE GLADSTONE: About 11 million people did see it this year, not bad for a 40-year-old Christmas special. In fact, all three of the top-rated specials are in their early forties. I'm talking about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer from 1964, A Charlie Brown Christmas from '65, and The Grinch from '66, all still pulling in well over 10 million primetime viewers year after year.
We asked reporters Alex Goldmark and Rachel McCarthy to find out what makes these classics classic. Here's Alex Goldmark. ALEX GOLDMARK: First of all, back in the mid-sixties there were only three channels. So a hit program or animated special could be huge! For instance, half of all American viewers watching TV the night Charlie Brown first aired were watching Charlie Brown. [SONG, "CHRISTMAS TIME IS HERE"] [UP & UNDER] It was a cultural experience shared by the whole nation. And babyboomers, like teacher Larry Kaplan, remember it vividly. LARRY KAPLAN When it came out everybody in school was talkin' about it, everybody was, you know, goin' home that night to watch it. And you had to watch it. If you didn't watch it, you were like on the outside; you didn't get to talk about it the next day. [SONG CONTINUES] ALEX GOLDMARK: Back then the networks subscribed to a big tent theory: get everybody and their mothers watching, literally, and make specials extra special. PHIL ROMAN: It was kind of like a golden age. ALEX GOLDMARK: Phil Roman was one of the animators of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. He says there was a flood of creativity. PHIL ROMAN Disney had had a big layoff in the late fifties, and a lot of the animators had gone into television, so just a very, a very exciting time to be around. It's a very fleeting time, but it was a very special time. ALEX GOLDMARK: And the right time for these special characters. The Grinch was already a popular Dr. Zeuss book, Rudolph had been a hit Gene Autry song and an advertising icon for years. And Charlie Brown was one of the most popular comic strip characters in America. That big name recognition was an advertiser's dream. Maybe that's why it was Coca-Cola, not CBS, that initially commissioned A Charlie Brown Christmas from Peanuts creator Charles Schulz. Executive producer Lee Mendelsohn brokered the deal LEE MENDELSOHN: When we were putting the show together, Schulz said, well, if we're gonna do an animated Christmas show, why don't we talk about the true meaning of Christmas? And we said, what do you mean. He said, well, I think we ought to have Linus, you know, talk from the Bible. And-- [CLIP] LINUS: Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. [END OF CLIP] ALEX GOLDMARK: Mendelsohn said he and the animator were taken aback because nobody had ever animated the Bible. LEE MENDELSOHN And Schulz noticed our hesitation and he said, and if we don't do this, who will. And that's the line that projected us into the, to the whole show and to the whole philosophy. ALEX GOLDMARK: Mendelsohn wasn't worried what Coca-Cola would think about mixing the Bible with Vince Guaraldi's jazz soundtrack. [SOUNDTRACK PLAYING] He was worried about the slow pace, which was rare in cartoons, and also the use of real kids' voices, which was unheard of. [CLIP] LUCY: Look Charlie, let's face it, we all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It's run by a big Eastern syndicate, you know.
CHARLIE: Well, this is one play that's not gonna be commercial. LUCY: What do you want? CHARLIE The proper mood. We need a Christmas tree. ALEX GOLDMARK: Ron Simon is curator of the Museum of Television and Radio. RON SIMON It was not a phoniness of adults. It dealt with kids' grappling with the meaning of Christmas, and here you actually have kids saying these lines. ALEX GOLDMARK: So what was once seen as a big risk is now hailed as an innovation, like Rudolph's quirky cast. [CLIP] NARRATOR: SAM THE SNOWMAN: What's the matter? Haven't you ever seen a talking snowman before? [END OF CLIP] ALEX GOLDMARK: It seems obvious now, but inserting narrator Burl Ives as a snowman into the story, and yet still apart from it, was a big step for animated storytelling.
Two years later came The Grinch, a major production, which under the direction of legendary Warner Brothers animator, Chuck Jones, made TV animation look and sound like the movies, only tailored for the small screen. [CLIP] [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] NARRATOR: Then he got an idea. An awful idea. The Grinch got a wonderful, awful idea. [END CLIP] ALEX GOLDMARK: Of the dozens of animated specials since The Grinch, a few like Frosty the Snowman have endured. But none of them were particularly groundbreaking, nor as popular as the originals. There was The Year Without a Santa Claus, also the lesser-known Chuck Jones special, Raggedy Ann and Andy's Great Santa Claus Caper. Maybe you remember He Man and Shira, a Christmas Spectacular. Christmas Comes to Packland? No? Well, neither does Ron Simon. RON SIMON: They're very forgettable. And no one has an allegiance to them at all. And it's really the progenitors, these three specials that have started the trend, and are now cemented as the Christmas memory. [THE GRINCH CLIP] NARRATOR: Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before. "Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store." Maybe, perhaps, means a little bit more." [END CLIP] RON SIMON: They're all created in mid-sixties America, a very special time. It's America where there's all possibilities, the possibility of racial harmony. It's the Great Society, that we're going to take care of everyone in the society. [THE GRINCH CLIP] NARRATOR: And then the true meaning of Christmas came through, and the Grinch found the strength of ten Grinches, plus two. [MUSIC] ALEX GOLDMARK: When else would you get something like Rudolph's Island of Misfit Toys. [RUDOLPH CLIP] CHARLIE-IN-THE-BOX: I am the official sentry of the Island of Misfit Toys. dialogue HERMEY: A jack-in-the-box for a sentry? CHARLIE-IN-THE-BOX: Yeah, my name is -- RUDOLPH: Don't tell me: Jack. CHARLIE-IN-THE-BOX: No, Charlie. [END CLIP]
ALEX GOLDMARK: Weird stuff, huh? Anyway. RON SIMON: That Charlie Brown can understand the meaning, that the misfit toys of Rudolph can be part of an entire Christmas, and that somehow even the sourpuss of sourpusses, the Grinch can be part of a harmony of more perfect union. And that type of feeling, that idealism, is not part of our culture today. But it is a postcard from America's past. ALEX GOLDMARK: From a time when we watched TV together, before narrow casting and five-TV households, television's become more solitary today. The average program gets just over one viewer watching per household.
But senior vice president at Nielsen Media Research, Patricia McDonough, says The Grinch, like the other specials, still draws an old-fashioned audience. PATRICIA McDONOUGH Which is a mix of kids, some teenagers and usually at least one, if not two, parents watching it with them. ALEX GOLDMARK: So when a babyboomer like Larry Kaplan hears the soft melodies of the Who's Down in Who-ville, it's not just that he remembers the hot popcorn of his childhood and singing to the TV with his brother 40 years ago. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] He also remembers doing it with his kids, just last year. [SONG/MUSIC FROM THE GRINCH] And this year will be no different. LARRY KAPLAN It's--our traditional way of spending Christmas eve is to watch all the cartoons and all the Christmas movies. You know, when they were little we'd do the old thing with the popcorn and things like that, and now we kind of have eggnog with, you know, a little rum.
ALEX GOLDMARK: Well, some little things have to change, even with a classic. ["YOU'RE A MEAN ONE, MR. GRINCH"] BROOKE GLADSTONE: That piece was reported by Alex Goldmark who we heard, and Rachel McCarthy, who we didn't. [CLIP] You're as cuddly as a cactus, you're as charming as an eel, Mr. Grinch. Your brain is full of spiders, you've got garlic in your soul, Mr. Grinch! I wouldn't touch you with a--39-and a half foot pole. [END CLIP, MUSIC OUT]