Exclusive! Rankin/Bass Music Director Maury Laws Reflects On Stop-Motion Christmas Specials

For more than twenty years, Maury Laws was the man standing on the podium, and behind the baton of some of our most beloved and cherished Christmas specials to ever air on television.

He brought the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (the longest running special in TV history)to life, helped to construct Frosty the Snowman and was even there for The Year Without a Santa Claus.

Patrick Phillips: Maury, how did you get started writing music for these incredible specials?

Maury Laws: I worked as an arranger on several television shows for other people and then got a chance—I was asked to be the musical director for this show General Electric was going to sponsor—and was asked if I’d like to be the musical director of that. It was Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. So sure, I did it. It was actually budgeted to run twice.

PP: How did you come to meet Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass for the first time?

ML: The way I got that job was that in those days they were just starting their company. It was called Videocraft International, Ltd., a very prestigious name for a very small operation. They had never done anything as big as Rudolph on their own. They both had jobs. Arthur was an art director at ABC and Jules worked for an advertising agency.  Working for the agency, Jules did commercials—jingles, as we call them. He wrote lyrics sometimes for commercials because they had to make a living while they got this fledging company going. Jules is the one I knew because we had worked together at times. I was a freelance composer, arranger (mostly arranger in those days), and conductor, and we were put together here and there. I knew him in the studios and he knew my work, and so he called me up one Saturday morning and said, “Why don’t you come down? I’d like to talk.” I went down and that’s how I got Rudolph.

PP: Maury, at some point, obviously you were adapting the music of Johnny Marks. What was his contribution like to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer?

ML: They hired Johnny for the song. I didn’t write any original songs for that. I was the musical director and I wrote all the arrangements and directed it, but Johnny Marks wrote all the songs. They hired him for that. He wrote all of them. He wrote some new ones, and I think two or three of them were in his trunk, that he had written before and never sold. See, Johnny Marks was already very big in the business, very successful, because Rudolph had been a hit since 1949—and Johnny Marks owned his own publishing company called St. Nicholas, which is still there, and his two sons run it. He was very well off and successful. He had written “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” “Holly Jolly Christmas” came out of our show, Rudolph, which he wrote either before that or had it in the trunk unsold. So that was a song from Rudolph.

PP: Was the project scored and recorded first, or did you see the animated film and then try to track it? How did that all come about?

ML: There are storyboards. First, there’s a script. And the script gets approved, and then you have an artist if you’re doing animation. They do storyboards, which look like a comic book. They’re little things that look like little TV screens in this case, and with characters drawn in them, how it progresses from one scene to another. It’s called a storyboard, and the dialogue is written in beneath these little pictures. It looks very much like a comic book. That is what we go from. What I went from when you score the songs and they come out, however long they are, you decide the routine, you decide the key. If you have a star in the show—a vocalist in the show—that has to be arrived at. The background cues are done to a time, a stopwatch time, and “click tracks,” we called them in those days. There are more sophisticated things now to convert time to film, but in those days we had what was known as click tracks. I wrote the music to these specifications. Then it was cut into an audio track by an engineer so that the dialogue and maybe a few sound effects, but not all of them, and the music were put into… Film has three elements. It has dialogue, sound effects, and music. We have the dialogue track and we have the music track. We created that, and then the animation was done in Japan. So, you send that track and they animated to it. When the film comes back, it comes back in little pieces. It’s put together later. You get this scene and that scene and that scene and that, and it’s all made in sections.

PP: You came in and you did Frosty the Snowman in 1969, which I have a personal interesting story to tell, which is that every time Frosty would melt and Santa would say, “It’s okay, Karen,” I would cry when I was a kid.

ML: Well, of course.

PP: It was just really devastating, because you did this thing with the music where it’s just—

ML: Wasn’t that sad?

PP: Oh, it’s slow and it’s pretty and it’s sad, and it shows the little flashback. I just cried every single time.

ML: Not anymore, I hope.

PP: Well, I don’t know. Not that I would admit!

ML: The thing about Frosty—that was flat animation. Rudolph was the puppets, the dimensional puppets that are moved with stop motion, with a picture taken for each movement. As I remember, Frosty was drawn with what you would call flat animation, which is a less expensive process and faster to produce. But that was, I believe, our second one. I think we went on to do about 25 of them.

PP: There’s quite a few of these. One of my favorite is Mad Monster Party.

ML: I’m surprised you know about that. It has a cult following of people who like that thing for the funkiness of it. Doing a jazzy-type score, which was supposed to be a little bit of a tongue-in-cheek sendup, if you will, of the Bond movies and all that of that time, that’s what I was going for with the orchestra.

PP: You have a distinct sound. In other words, if it wasn’t you scoring Rankin/Bass, it just wouldn’t feel right. There’s something about the way you write that music. What is it that makes your sound so unique?

ML: Thank you for the kind words. I just came up with it in the beginning. I thought Christmas sounds have bells and things that sustain and then ring. I don’t know how much I got from Tchaikovsky—not enough, maybe. Sometimes you take something and make it smaller in the sound, for that, behind those characters, too overbearing, but I try to write interesting. I never looked at one of those characters as a cartoon. I wrote for them as though they were people—the name “Karen” or the name “Tom” or whatever the name was in the show. Never as a cartoon. I wrote real music. We didn’t use slide whistles. I never used—unless it was a little bit of source music. (That would be if you see a radio and want a sound coming out of it, would be a “source music.” Or a band walking down the street playing, you would write band music.) But otherwise, I would write real music. I never wrote what I would call “cartoon music.” I’m certainly not the first person to ever do that, but I took it seriously. Sometimes you get to thinking maybe the story is a little bit simplistic. It’s designed for family and children in the first place. But I wrote it seriously and I never wrote down or gave up on something or sloughed it off, as we used to say. I took it seriously and it’s real music. So if some of it came out that way, I’m very pleased.

PP: I noticed that you favor the French horn quite a bit.

ML: I love that. French horns make you classy. It’s a very classy sound and it’s very expressive. I used other things too…

PP: Well, the horn—it’s interesting—How many horns did you have in, say, Rudolph?

ML: There were usually three. We recorded almost…a good deal…over half of our shows were recorded in London. In those days, almost all the studio American people were going over there to record. They did good work. Rudolph, for instance, would have had a small band if I’d done it in New York or L.A. By going to England in those days, we were able to work it out. The union wouldn’t let you record anything—run out of the country and record—except if the film was shot out of this country or part of it was shot abroad, out of the U.S. You were allowed to record anywhere you wanted to because we are, after all, a free enterprise in this country. We were allowed to record in England because the film was done in Japan. By going to England, I was able to have a nice string section, a full 25/30–piece orchestra. That gave it a whole different sound than if I had done a cartoon session in New York, which the budget would have called for. Our first trip to England was Rudolph. We, after that, recorded many things over there. I was going back and forth. I made more than 50 trips to London back in the ’60s and ’70s.

PP: How do you feel that film music has changed? Do you think it’s changed for the good or for the bad?

ML: I would have to say it’s changed for the bad. It sounds like an old man talking, but in this respect: Film music used to be written for the film and it used to carry the feel of the film. The job of music is to tell people what to feel. Film and music went together ever since the first film was rolled in Paris in 1895 and somebody played a piano. They discovered that music and film helped one another. They went together. They were a good marriage. Well, music here in the ’30s and ’40s got to be a little overbearing in films, I guess, because they really would say the message over and over. And then it got to the place where it cooled down a bit and Mancini was brilliant in that he brought jazz into it and we got away from everything being a European composer. He would work with the film but not try to say it, to duplicate the saying. But then, actually the first time a song came out of a movie really was Laura with David Raksin. After that, everybody had to put a title song on a movie. This, I think, as we got into the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, it became so excessive. Now we don’t have film writers writing films; we have some guy who had a hit record putting the song on the thing so it can be played on the radio so they can plug a picture. It’s not film music. I think films have changed. If you put one of those old…I can’t think of the names I want to use…but the brilliant film writers from the ’40s, their music wouldn’t fit at all. But the music, you can tell, the background, it’s really not film music. It’s a way of making it heard on the air.

PP: Maury, as you look back over all the things that you’ve accomplished, all the pieces that you’ve written, is there one that stands out with some sort of sentimental value to you?

ML: Some of the things I like best are unheard because they’re background or something that wasn’t as popular as the others. Among the shows that I did, I think the two that worked best for me were Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town and The Year Without a Santa Claus, which is from a Phyllis McGinley book, a little tiny book.

PP: “Put One Foot in Front of the Other” comes to mind.

ML: That score worked well and so did “The Year Without.”

PP: That’s with the Snow Miser and the Heat Miser.

ML: The ‘Misers’ is a big cult hit. He has his own website, Heat Miser. There’s a whole bunch of people. I’ve had people come to my house, ring the doorbell—and these are grownups. College-age kids come and there will be three or four of them standing there, and they ring a bell, and I went to the door, and they say, “Did you write that song ‘Heat Miser’?” And I said, “Yes.” And I said, “Wow. Son of a gun.” They had had some discussion about some of the stuff I did and some of the stuff I didn’t, and you wonder why, but it’s very popular. Mickey Rooney played Santa, and he had this wonderful voice and with all his enthusiasm. He’s that type of guy. I think one reason they worked so well was Mickey Rooney, and with Keenan Wynn in one of them, and Fred Astaire was in Santa Claus is Comin’…It was wonderful. When Rankin/Bass started, it was hard to get celebrities to do that. They don’t quite know what you’re going to do with them, and they don’t want to get hurt. But after you get Fred Astaire and you get Mickey Rooney and you get Red Skelton and a couple, then the agents, they all want to do it. So, we had no trouble getting celebrities to act in the shows.

PP: You’ve touched the lives of many people. How does that make you feel?

ML: Surprised! Because I told you, it was made to run twice. That was the budget. I am no more surprised than Arthur Rankin or Jules Bass. I’ve heard Arthur admit it, that he’s very surprised that they’ve lasted this long. They were made very carefully, as I’ve said before. They were made without gimmicks of the day that six weeks later are obsolete. I kept my part and they kept theirs. And there’s nothing offensive in the shows. Some people might find them a little precious because they were made for children in the first place. They were very carefully made and we were all friends and we enjoyed it. We did what we did the very best we could. It was never slighted.

PP: And I think that’s why it will always remain classic. Maury, thanks so much for spending some time here with us.

ML: Thank you, Patrick. I couldn’t have spent it in a more pleasant way. I thank you for this chance to speak with your audience. And I wish you a good holiday season and I wish you much success in your own career, which I’ve noticed and read about.

PP: Thank you so much. I really appreciate that, Maury.

ML: All right! Been a pleasure.

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