DeFlip Side #143: Remembering Mr. Christmas

DS143.mp3

Welcome every one. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

Every Christmas we celebrate the works of writers like Clement Clarke Moore, Charles Dickens, O. Henry and Dr. Seuss, whose stories have defined the spirit of Christmas for generations.

But if you grew up in the 70s like I did, you probably owe many more of your warm, fuzzy Christmas memories to a writer whose work has been every bit as influential, but who remains largely unsung. His name is Romeo Muller. And though you probably haven’t heard of him, you’ve certainly heard this.

That’s the musical sting played at the end of all those Rankin/Bass specials that we so looked forward to every year growing up—Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town—and Romeo Muller wrote almost all of them.

Thanks to cable TV and video on demand, these specials are now more widely seen than ever. And as a generation that loves to wallow in nostalgia, proclaiming our unbridled love for these stop-motion holiday standbys has become almost perfunctory. But we never spread any of that love to Muller and it’s a shame.

I almost can’t help but love the guy, since we had almost the same exact start in life. Like me, Muller was born in the Bronx and raised on Long Island. And like me, he spent his early career writing for radio—only unlike me, he was wildly successful and worked for the likes of Jack Benny.

In fact, Muller was so good that CBS founder William Paley tapped him personally to be a staff writer on the network’s widely acclaimed 1950s television drama anthology, Studio One.

This got him noticed by a couple of television producers named Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass, who hired Muller to write their 1964 television special, Return to Oz. They must have liked it, because that same year, Muller also wrote them a script for Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. And the rest is holiday history.

Throughout the 60s and 70s, Muller wrote more than 20 holiday specials for Rankin/Bass, most of them Christmas themed with a few Easter and Thanksgiving shows thrown in for good measure. And while Rudolph remains the most popular by far, my favorite has always been Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.

I’ve always been a sucker for origin stories, and longtime DeFlip Side listeners know what a Santa fanatic I am. Even as a little kid I wondered where the Claus mythos began, so Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town seemed to speak directly to me, as it explains, among other things, how Santa got his name and his red suit, why he delivers toys and how he came to live at the North Pole.

Even now, as an adult, I still marvel at how well written this special is, with Muller deftly and organically addressing all of these questions in the course of a larger story about the life of Kris Kringle, which is accessible to all ages.

In so doing he’s following in the footsteps of writers like Clement Clarke Moore, who pretty much created the modern Santa in his 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” and Oz creator L. Frank Baum who wrote a book about Santa’s supernatural origins called The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus in 1902. So Muller is actually in some pretty august company when it comes to crafters of Santa lore, and in my opinion he’s the most entertaining of the bunch.

But Muller didn’t only do Christmas. Other genre works range from his Oz special and the TV adaptation of Puff The Magic Dragon to episodes of Strawberry Shortcake and ThunderCats. But his most ambitious non-Christmas project began simply, with a hole in the ground—a Hobbit hole, to be exact.

The Hobbit Peter Jackson

No, not that one….

The Hobbit Rankin/Bass

That’s the one!

1977 saw Muller’s television adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, as envisioned by Rankin/Bass—an audio version of which you heard right here last week on the Destinies Radio Theater. And while the critical and fan reception remains mixed, Muller won a Peabody award for his script, and earned a Hugo nomination as well—losing to a little movie called Star Wars. He followed this up in 1980 with an adaptation of The Return of the King. Granted, these made-for-TV versions are a little rough to get through, but you still have to give Rankin/Bass and Muller credit for introducing Tolkien’s seminal work to an entirely new generation of fans, me included. By this measure Muller’s contribution to the genre is incalculable.

But it’s for his Christmas specials that he’s best remembered, and that’s fitting, since they were clearly the main outlet for his passion and talent.  And it’s also somehow fitting that Muller died in his sleep on December 30, 1992, in the midst of the season that he loved.

Those who remembered him upon his death called him “Mr. Christmas” and “Mr. Santa Claus.” And what with his white beard and 6’2” 300-pound frame, he must have cut a jolly figure indeed.

So as you introduce your own kids to Frosty, or sing along with Rudolph and Hermey, reveling in childhood memories, dedicate some of your yuletide cheer to Romeo Muller. Your holidays literally wouldn’t be the same without him.

Merry Christmas!

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