Friends, it was a half-century ago today that the Rankin and Bass stop motion animated classic Here Comes Peter Cottontail was first broadcast on ABC. While I did not catch it when it was first aired as I hadn’t been born, Here Comes Peter Cottontail was a Holiday favorite of mine when I was growing up. In the days before a VCR or the internet made it possible to enjoy pretty much everything at our convenience, we only had one shot to see TV specials before we were forced to wait an entire year for it to be rebroadcast again. And for what it might be worth, I can recall watching this at my Grandparents a number of times in my youth, followed of course by sitting at the kitchen table and carefully dyeing Easter Eggs. In addition as I will share a little later in the article, watching Here Comes Peter Cottontail one year led to a very memorable and surprisingly scary experience.
Here Comes Peter Cottontail was inspired by two different sources, the first was the iconic tune of the same name written by Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins, the same duo responsible for the slightly more popular “Here Comes Santa Claus” as well as the “Frosty the Snowman” Holiday songs. Thanks to the popularity of the Santa Claus tune, recorded by Gene Autry and released in 1947, the ‘Singing Cowboy’ would be tapped again to record “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” and “Frosty the Snowman” three years later. It might surprise you to learn that it was the song celebrating the busy Easter Bunny that fared better of the two on the Billboard charts, with it hitting the #3 spot for Hot Country Singles and nabbing the #5 slot on the Hot 100 list.
The second source that inspired the Rankin and Bass TV special came from the 1957 children’s story entitled The Easter Bunny That Overslept by Priscilla Friedrich, Otto Friedrich, and Adrienne Adams. In the case of the book, the titular Easter Bunny manages to miss the Holiday completely and spends the remainder of the book trying to deliver his stock of eggs during the remaining Holidays, finding out that children are less likely to accept them during the likes of the 4th of July. The teleplay for the television special adds a few additional elements and was written by Romeo Muller (Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer) and Thornton W. Burgess (Fables of the Green Forest).
It might interest you to know that Here Comes Peter Cottontail was released just a mere four months after another Rankin and Bass Holiday classic, Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town. Which as was pointed out in an article by Greg Ehrbar for the Cartoon Research site, this would most assuredly mean that Rankin and Bass were working on this Easter TV special at the same time as the latter. While Kizo Nagashima (The Wacky World of Mother Goose) is credited with being the Animagic (stop-motion) supervisor, the iconic songs were written by Maury Laws and Jules Bass who provided 6 original tunes for the Easter special.
The story for Here Comes Peter Cottontail concerns the titular character receiving the honor of being elected to the position of the official Easter Bunny, even though he exhibits less than stellar characteristics. The problem is that Peter has a rival of sorts in January Q. Irontail, who has no interest in spreading happiness but wants to be elected to the position so he can enact his revenge on children all over the world for the loss of his tail, which was severed when a child ran over it while roller skating. Irontail proposes a competition to see who can deliver the most Easter Eggs the following day, the winner will be the rabbit who is granted the title and position of Easter Bunny.
Thanks to some underhanded shenanigans by Irontail, Peter manages to sleep through the day, and the contest is won by the devious January who proceeds to transform the Easter Holiday into something more suitable for Halloween.
So it is up to Peter Cottontail to somehow fix the mess that his carelessness has caused and take his rightful place as the official Easter Bunny. This is accomplished by meeting and teaming up with a colorful cast of characters, including some other Holiday guardians and the use of… a time machine?
I would certainly be remiss if I didn’t take a moment and point out that Here Comes Peter Cottontail benefits greatly from the fantastic cast of voice actors that were tapped for the production. Danny Kaye (White Christmas) lent his voice to not just Seymour S. Sassafras, the narrator for the special but Antoine and Colonel Wellington B. Bunny as well. In addition there is Casey Kasem (Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!) as Peter Cottontail, Paul Frees (The Haunted Mansion), Joan Gardner (Snorks), and of course the one and only Vincent Price as January Q. Irontail.
Which leads us to the scary experience I had in my youth one year after watching Here Comes Peter Cottontail. As a kid I would always spend the weekends at my Grandparents, for this particular Easter though it was extra special as my cousins happened to be visiting. Growing up as a Monster Kid there was certainly nothing about the Rankin and Bass TV special that would have unnerved me, but as we were quite frankly hopped up on sugar we laid in bed talking about the show. And then from outside of our window we heard something, it sounded just like the clanking of January Q. Irontail’s tail, followed by a shadow on the blinds of what appeared to be a rabbit hopping past the window. We ducked our heads under the covers and waited for that clanking sound to go away and after long minutes we dared to take a peek, thankfully everything was quiet after that and even with that unexpected fright we soon fell asleep.
The following morning we excitedly related the story to our Family and were told it was just our imagination and the amount of sugar we had consumed. To this day I do not believe that was the case, for one thing while hunting for Easter eggs that morning after breakfast, I found a small coffee can with a few nails hidden behind the short hedges in front of the bedroom window. I am absolutely positive that our uncles were the culprits, overhearing us talking about Here Comes Peter Cottontail in bed, with the shadow of the rabbit passing the window being just a little hand shadow puppetry.
So in closing out this overly long article, here is to 50 years of Here Comes Peter Cottontail, a Holiday special that is delightfully unique and fun as when it first aired. From all of us at the Pop Culture Retrorama site, we hope you have a very safe and happy holiday!