Whatever Happened to ‘The Easter Bunny Is Coming To Town’ and Other Rankin/Bass Easter Specials?
Let’s start at the beginning, as famed stop-motion animators — Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass — had not just one Easter special, but three. Here Rankin/Bass historian Rick Goldschmidt shares the official story behind bringing Here Comes Peter Cottontail (1971), The First Easter Rabbit (1976) and The Easter Bunny Is Comin’ to Town (1977) to TV audiences.
Moving From Christmas to Easter With “Here Comes Peter Cottontail”
It all began on April 4, 1971 with the premiere of Rankin/Bass’ Here Comes Peter Cottontail on ABC. In fact, promos for the special could be seen during commercial breaks of the gothic soap opera Dark Shadows that year. I remember seeing this special as a kid and it was pure Easter magic! I looked for it many years after and it was hard to find on the networks. It eventually moved from ABC to CBS. Today, I place Here Comes Peter Cottontail in my top five all-time favorite Rankin/Bass TV specials! And to think this came out just a few months after the premiere of Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town on ABC — it’s fascinating. Rankin/Bass Productions were really on a roll! Not only was the story strong, written by Romeo Muller, which was based on the short story The Easter Bunny That Overslept by Priscilla and Otto Friedrich, but the soundtrack is one of THE strongest in the Rankin/Bass catalog.
At that time, budgets were getting bigger so crews were no longer going to Canada for voice actors. They were getting multiple big stars for these early 1970s productions. Danny Kaye was a huge film, television and recording star. He worked absolute magic on the characters in the Easter special — Seymour S. Sassafras, Colonel Bunny and Antoine the caterpillar.
Danny was perfect in every way for this animated production. His songs were beautifully performed and his voice was very animated. Arthur Rankin recalled that he was traveling around the world with Danny at this point and Danny wore a pair of brown corduroy pants that were all worn out. You can see these pants in some of the photos I have of Danny in the studio and in the documentary I show at my events. Rankin said, “I threw the pants out on one of our trips. They were horribly worn out and Danny had a fit. They were his good luck pants.”
Vincent Price was cast as the Evil Irontail. Again, perfect casting! Another veteran actor who was perfect for over-the-top animation! I believe this performance and character design had the biggest influence on the career of Tim Burton. Vincent was dressed completely in goth clothing. Leather gloves, jacket, belt…all black! The Halloween segment of the special includes chairs from Mad Monster Party and even some reused theme music, like “A Waltz for a Witch.” Esmerelda the witch, voiced by Joan Gardner, was another highlight. Vincent, with his bat Montrisar, was THE perfect villain. Our friend Greg Stern (on screen, billed as Greg Thomas) returned to do some of the children’s voices in this special, which aired just months after Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town, in which he was the voice of the young Kris.
For Peter Cottontail, we have the voice of Casey Kasem. One forgets that Casey did this one, as he is better known for his America’s Top 40 countdown, doing the voices for Shaggy in Scooby Doo, Where Are You? and Robin, the Boy Wonder in the Filmation cartoons. His performance as Peter is flawless. Again, perfect casting for the entire cast.
When musical composer/conductor Maury Laws and I chatted about the Peter Cottontail soundtrack over dinner at Easter, he let me know he thought it was one of their finest soundtracks. “The songs were varied and moved the story along well. When Jules and I wrote, ‘If I Could Only Get Back to Yesterday,’ I had country music in mind. When we wrote, ‘The Puzzle of Life,’ we had Frank Sinatra in mind. We weren’t trying to copy anything specifically, we just used that style for the particular songs.”
The Only Easter Merchandising
For years, I couldn’t find Peter Cottontail on TV. Eventually a great DVD came out in high-def and beautiful color, around 2010. Other merchandise followed. I was involved with Enesco on a figurine line based on the special that I helped design. Collectors like my friend Bruce Benzel are seeking these figurines out and willing to pay big bucks! My friend Tony Cipriano designed a set of action figures for Diamond many years back. The Sassafrass actually looks like he could be the Animagic figure. There have been a series of activity books and Golden Books, as well, over the years. CVS and Stuffins also produced a large and small doll of Peter Cottontail, shortly after they introduced their Rudolph and Frosty lines in the late 1990s. More recently, there has been candy and a candy dispenser based on the special. Out of the three, this is the only Rankin/Bass Easter special that has been merchandised. The soundtrack was never issued to the public. It was issued as a promotional LP on green vinyl to the staff of Rankin/Bass and ABC executives with another sticker cover with a Paul Coker poster ad, just like The Frosty the Snowman promo, minus the script, and the Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town ABC promo on Red Vinyl. Ironically, a blu-ray disc was issued by Universal and they mistakingly put the syndicated version out, which is missing about eight minutes of the special and edited everywhere. All of the Universal and Warner Bros. Rankin/Bass productions blu-rays need to be re-done. I recently worked on a blu-ray package of Rankin/Bass’ Mad Monster Party for Umbrella Entertainment, which will be released in May 2023. It will be the new gold standard for Rankin/Bass Production blu-rays in the future, absolutely loaded with extras and assembled with care for the fans.
The Enchanted World of Danny Kaye?
Another thing that developed from this special was a long friendship between Danny and Arthur Rankin, in fact the two had a plan to launch a whole series of Animagic specials around Danny!
One of those specials was in 1972, when a pilot was shot for the proposed series The Enchanted World of Danny Kaye with the first episode titled “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” A documentary was also shot to sell the series and Jack Davis was set to design some of it. There was a definite rapport with Danny. He went on The Dick Cavett Show and spoke about Arthur and Jules and the different forms of animation in the series. Unfortunately, the series did not sell, and ABC passed on it, possibly due to ratings from the first episode. Recently, I learned that writer P.L. Travers (Mary Poppins) had written a treatment for this series on “Jack Frost,” which is now in the archives of her library in Australia. Animagic figures were produced of Punch and Judy, which were discussed in the documentary. There was even a puppet theater built as well. I was told that Jerry Lewis and Carol Burnett were to do those voices and some demo songs were recorded for the project (these songs are included on The Daydreamer soundtrack). At any rate, some very creative things were happening in this part of Rankin/Bass’ career when these Easter specials were just beginning.
1976 Welcomed “The First Easter Rabbit”
The second Rankin/Bass Easter special, The First Easter Rabbit, premiered on April 9, 1976 on NBC. The special was narrated by Burl Ives who also starred as G.B. (The Great Easter Bunny). This time, Rankin/Bass Productions chose the Easter-card look in linear animation and the wonderful styling of Paul Coker Jr. This special was sponsored by Sunshine Biscuits and the soundtrack LP came with a credit listing sheet of Sunshine Biscuits information on it as well. The special seems to be celebrating the centennial with some of the opening imagery during the wonderful theme song by Maury Laws and Jules Bass, “There’s That Rabbit.”
This half-hour special features another delightful soundtrack, including Burl Ives singing “Easter Parade” (the memorable Irving Berlin song). Robert Morse made another Rankin/Bass appearance as Stuffy, G.B.’s younger self. Robert called me up Christmas morning of 2015, after receiving the 15th anniversary edition of The Enchanted World of Rankin/Bass and said, “You don’t know what the memories of being in these Rankin/Bass specials has meant to me. They were just wonderful and I really enjoyed being a part of them.”
The First Easter Rabbit makes good use of veteran voice actors, too. Paul Frees returns as Spats, Bruce and Zero. Stan Freberg voices Flops the Rabbit. Don Messick voiced Whiskers the rabbit and the Doctor named Jonathan.
While this special is not as well known as the others, I love that Burl Ives came back complete with his vest and gave a similar performance to his Sam the Snowman. His late wife Dorothy was quite fond of this one, too! This was the third project Burl had worked on for Rankin/Bass by this point and he was getting ready for his fourth in 1977, The Bermuda Depths. Warner Bros. eventually released it in a deluxe format DVD with a slip cover and put the Rankin/Bass logo on the front, which was rare to see. It hasn’t aired on television in quite a while, but all three Easter specials deserve annual airings.
Fred Astaire Returns For Third and Final Easter Special: “The Easter Bunny Is Comin’ to Town”
On April 6, 1977, ABC aired the third and final Easter special, The Easter Bunny Is Comin’ to Town. Fred Astaire returns as S.D. Kluger and shares the history behind the Easter Bunny and the reasons behind our Easter traditions, just as he did about Santa Claus in 1970 in Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town. The Easter story as written by Romeo Muller Jr. and is told in Animagic once again, introducing a whole new cast of characters, including Sunny the Easter Bunny (voiced by Skip Hinnant), Chugs the Train (voiced by my late friend Bob McFadden), Hallelujah H. Jones (voiced by Ron Marshall), King Bruce (James Spies), Aunt Lily Longtooth (voiced by Meg Sargent … who is alive and well), and Gadzooks the bear (voiced by Allen Swift).
I think I first saw this special on the Disney Channel, back when it was airing quality stuff. It seems to capture the holiday best for me. While Here Comes Peter Cottontail is the better special and The First Easter Rabbit has some wonderful things about it, too, The Easter Bunny Is Comin’ to Town focuses solely on the holiday of Easter. There is a charm and warmth that this special has. It is very colorful and has wonderful songs! Once you hear Fred Astaire sing “The Easter Bunny Is Comin’ To Town,” you will be singing it the rest of the day. While Maury Laws and Jules Bass wrote a great song for The First Easter Rabbit with “There’s That Rabbit,” they may have outdone themselves with this great title track!
I cannot understate the wonderful Animagic, supervised by Akikazu Kono, in this one. As the years went on, the Animagic became smoother. Masaki Iizuka was on board as associate producer by then. He and I talked about this at Arthur Rankin’s Memorial in Bermuda. We both agreed that “Peace Berries” in Marco (1973) may have been the best Animagic Rankin/Bass ever produced, but certainly, as time went on, the Animagic got better. With that said, I prefer the earlier designs by Antony Peters, and what Tad Mochinaga brought to the table. I believe the early stuff had a simplicity to it that was perfect in many ways. Hiroshi Tabata talks about this in my book, The Making of the Rankin/Bass Holiday Classic:Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
At any rate, I fondly watch the Rankin/Bass Easter trio every spring and marvel at what Rankin/Bass productions accomplished with the holiday. I don’t think any other animation studio has anything better to offer than this group of specials. Like the Christmas specials, the three help get me in the Easter mood and enjoy the holiday.
Where Can You Watch the Specials Today?
I wish that the networks or even AMC would broadcast these specials again for the new generation of kids. [Editor’s Note: For now you can either buy the DVDs or stream some of the specials on Prime Video.] The Ten Commandments are broadcast on network television still, and these are perfect specials for the family. I think these specials are every bit as important as Easter Eggs, jellybeans and Easter bonnets. In my book, The Enchanted World of Rankin/Bass: A Portfolio (Miser Bros Press), we beefed up the Easter content in the 20th anniversary edition.
Although it is not Easter-related, I am making a big appearance at the Center for Puppetry arts in Atlanta, GA December 2nd, 2023! I will be reuniting with the original Santa Claus and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Animagic figures and I will be making a big presentation on the original television special, which hits 60 in 2024!