By THE ENTHUSIAST
"Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town" has a bracing undercurrent of menace. Just try to read the following without a chill going down your spine:
You better watch out
You better not cry
Better not pout
I’m telling you why
Aiieeiiiieieiieei! That "I’m telling you why" is particularly chilling. It’s like "The Christmas Song" written by The Man With No Name from The Good, The Bad And The Ugly.
The Cantor-Do Spirit
In point of fact, however, this holiday standard was written by Haven Gillespie and J. Fred Coots. It was a hard sell at first, not because producers agreed with The Enthusiast’s shuddering fear of the narrator but because their publisher, Leo Feist Inc., believed it to be a "kids' song." Coots then ran the song by Eddie Cantor, who performed it on his radio show in November 1934. It was a hit from the moment he first sang it, with more than 400,000 copies of the sheet music sold by that Christmas.
Cantor, by the way, wasn’t immediately impressed, and would have passed on the song had he not been convinced by his wife Ida to include it in the show. Yet another reminder of the importance of loving partners to the creation of quality songs; attentive readers will recall Jay Livingston’s wife suggesting that he change "Tinkle Bells" to "Silver Bells," pronto.
Santa On Speed
When Haven Gillespie gave the lyrics to J. Fred Coots, Coots is said to have composed the music for "Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town" in less than ten minutes. Those same attentive readers will have realized by now that this blitzkrieg approach to songwriting is a hallmark of the genre – dashing off a song is every bit as much a part of Christmas, it seems, as dashing through the snow.
Rankin-Bass stop-motion features have been a Christmas staple since the Sixties, and Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town was their 1970 offering on ABC. It has the distinction of being the only Christmas special ever to feature a clutch of Prussian villains, Burgermeister Meisterburger and his pickle-sticker helmet-wearing cronies. The scenes where the Burgermeister sets all of the toys in Sombertown ablaze and burns down Kris Kringle’s house are a welcome rebuff to all those singing snowmen and scarf-sporting penguins.
Take A Trip And You Might See Santa
Preludes don’t get much trippier than the one that sets up "Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town":
I just came back from a lovely trip along the Milky Way Stopped off at the North Pole to spend a holiday I called on dear old Santa Claus To see what I could see He took me to his workshop And told his plans to me
You’d better lay off the absinthe, buddy. I’m telling you why.
Number twenty-three in a series.
23 December 2020
The Enthusiast (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the pen name of critic Michael Collins. He reports back only on what’s good, never what’s bad. He is currently imbued with the holiday spirit.