Canada, and several other parts of the world, are currently tiptoeing through that never-never-land between Christmas and New Year’s Day, when we’re not entirely sure whether to continue our full-on celebrations or just stumble from one family gathering, TV marathon or leftover box of Pot of Gold chocolates to another.
As I emerge from one of the busiest Advent-Christmas periods my wife Cathy and I have ever enjoyed, I’m looking back on a rare Canadian phenomenon: the successful home-grown Christmas TV special.
See, we don’t tend to generate “holiday classics” north of the 49th parallel. There isn’t really a Canadian equivalent for A Charlie Brown Christmas, The Grinch, Rudolph, Frosty or their pals. Even CBC, our national public broadcaster, is more likely to haul out National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Elf or Home Alone than revisit previous holiday extravaganzas or pour production money into new Yuletide efforts. (In all fairness, This Hour Has 22 Minutes had a great run of hour-long Christmas episodes in the early 2010s, but this year they’ve rejoined The Royal Canadian Air Farce for their traditional New Year’s Eve slot.)
And yet, in the early ’80s, we came mighty close to having not just one enduring animated holiday special, but two – one for Christmas and one for New Year’s Eve. These winter-themed cartoon adventures won us over, generated two follow-up specials and, in 1985, launched a long-running Canadian animated series that, remarkably, is now gearing up for a new-millennium reboot.
So let’s take a moment from our Boxing Week haze to celebrate Bert, Ralph and Melissa and their fellow Evergreen Forest denizens – the stars of The Raccoons.
Making its CBC debut on December 17. 1980. The Christmas Raccoons struck a chord with Canadian viewers with its engaging characters, snappy music and a theme that was just starting to emerge in our general conversation: specifically, woodlands conservation.
What starts as a simple misunderstanding – as the local forest ranger accidentally cuts down the “Raccoondominium” for his log cabin’s Christmas tree – escalates into a larger conflict when we realize that evil aardvark Cyril Sneer wants to bulldoze the entire Evergreen Forest. He’s foiled, of course, by the ranger’s gravelly-voiced dog Schaeffer and the title characters. Bert, Melissa and Ralph Raccoon. (I didn’t understand until years later that Ralph and Melissa were married and simply shared their place with wisecracking, overly-imaginative Bert, who always struck me as a furrier, less morally-ambiguous reworking of Daffy Duck in his voice and mannerisms. To this day, I’m surprised a married couple would put up with his nonsense, even if he was paying rent. It wasn’t quite You, Me and Dupree in raccoon form, but it occasionally came close.)
By the time The Christmas Raccoons – still available in its entirety here – hit the airwaves, I was already familiar with the voice of its narrator, Rich Little, playing a rare straight role in sharp contrast to his notoriety as a celebrity impressionist. (For a sample of Little’s work in this regard, check out his 1978 reworking of A Christmas Carol, in which he played everybody from W.C. Fields to Peter Falk’s Columbo to Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau; the whole show is available here.)
However, eight-year-old me had no idea that the voice of Lisa Raccoon was also courtesy of another big name, Grammy-winning American singer Rita Coolidge; her name appears second after Little’s in the opening credits. She also contributed two songs to The Christmas Raccoons, “Lake Freeze” and “Lost Angels.”
I also didn’t know that Rich Little’s brother Fred Little, an exceptional impressionist in his own right, was making his first bow as the voice of Cyril Sneer’s nerdy son Cedric in the original Raccoons special. Nor did I know that the voice of mild-mannered Dan the Forest Ranger came courtesy of British singer-songwriter Rupert Holmes, who also pitched in with two songs, “Shake The Sun” (which runs over the closing credits and has always been a sentimental favourite of mine) and “Perfect Tree.” Holmes, of course, had already earned a place in the cheesy-pop-culture history books with his 1979 chart-topper “Escape (The Pina Colada Song).”
This streak of unusual voice casting continued in the follow-up special The Raccoons On Ice, which debuted on CBC five days before Christmas 1981 and was re-run on New Year’s Eve. Coolidge and the Little brothers reprised their roles, and this time another chart-topping pop artist played Dan the Forest Ranger – Leo Sayer, who also chipped in with three songs – “Taking My Time,” “You Can Do It,” and “To Have You,” a duet with Coolidge (who added another solo vocal contribution, “Some Days”). To line up with the special’s hockey theme, producer Kevin Gillis recruited legendary Hockey Night In Canada play-by-play voice Danny Gallivan, who actually sounded like he was enjoying himself playing Evergreen Forest announcer Ferlin Fielddigger. (If you need proof, here’s a YouTube link for The Raccoons On Ice.)
This time around, Bert, Ralph and Melissa challenged Cedric Sneer and his team of hulking bears to a winner-take-all hockey game to see who would take control of the Raccoons’ beloved Evergreen Forest skating pond. It goes without saying that the Raccoons – assisted by Cedric Sneer (below, with then-new love interest Sophia Tutu) – won the game, with Bert scoring the winning goal just before regulation time ran out.
I’m more of a hockey fan these days than I was in grade-school, so the sports theme resonates more with me as an adult, but The Raccoons On Ice still entertained me and my entire family on New Year’s Eve 1981. (On New Year’s Day 1982, my sister and I even staged our own all-stuffed-animals version, “Muppets On Ice,” with Kermit the Frog captaining the New York Islanders – the jersey worn by Cedric in The Raccoons On Ice. Final score: Kermit’s Islanders 17, Miss Piggy’s Pittsburgh Penguins 16. No, I have no idea why Miss Piggy’s team was the Penguins.)
While researching this blog post, I was rather shocked to discover that the Evergreen Forest gang had reappeared in not one, but two separate productions prior to The Raccoons’ debut as a weekly series in 1985. I have no idea how I missed 1983’s The Raccoons and The Lost Star, which inexplicably took the characters to other planets in an attempt to replicate the appeal of the original Star Wars trilogy and similar flicks, or the direct-to-video 1984 follow-up The Raccoons: Let’s Dance! Mind you, since the latter production basically serves as a rehash of the previous three specials’ musical numbers, perhaps it’s just as well that I missed it. (Judge for yourself; here’s a link to the entire Let’s Dance! special. And here’s The Raccoons and the Lost Star in its entirety.)
Equally surprising: Another bit of celebrity voice-casting for The Raccoons and The Lost Star, which now featured John Schneider as Dan the Forest Ranger. Schneider, apparently having some time on his hands as a result of his lengthy contract dispute with the producers of The Dukes of Hazzard, also vocalized on two Lost Star songs – here’s “Calling You” – and harmonized on two others with Dottie West, who replaced Rita Coolidge as the voice of Melissa Raccoon. (Here’s West singing “Lions and Tigers.”)
Weirdly, even though Schneider and West were also featured in The Raccoons: Let’s Dance!, a contract dispute kept Schneider off the special’s soundtrack album, with several backup musicians suddenly hustled into taking lead roles in the previously Schneider-led songs. Which all goes to show you that there are some problems that even Bo Duke can’t solve.
Finally, after five-years of test-driving The Raccoons through one-shot animated adventures, Kevin Gillis and company finally landed a weekly spot on CBC-TV in the fall of 1985. Even though the official time slot was 7:30 p.m., you’ll notice that the CBC promo I’ve just posted insists that the series ran “in primetime.” Any way you slice it, the Evergeen Forest crew accomplished what no North American animated series had achieved since The Flintstones – landing a weekly spot in the nighttime TV landscape. (Yes, I’m well aware that The Simpsons gets the credit for this distinction, and if we apply the strictest definition of “prime time,” that series might just deserve it. But in terms of basic nighttime TV, The Raccoons actually beat The Simpsons by over four years – and Bert, Melissa and Ralph were on the air in a weekly capacity nearly two years before Bart, Lisa and Maggie got their start with brief inserts in FOX’s The Tracey Ullman Show.)
Now, The Raccoons will likely never be mistaken for The Simpsons in either look or tone. The series actually owes a little bit to Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes shorts, particularly in the cartoon violence that often befell Bert Raccoon (even in the show’s opening sequence) or Cyril Sneer’s high-voiced pig boot-lickers or clumsy bear henchmen. As well, the writing occasionally had a preachy, plodding quality to it, particularly when environmental issues were concerned.
And yet, as I watched a handful of episodes on VHS while researching this blog post, I found a lot to laugh at, a little to learn, and a lot to love in The Raccoons. Even Cyril, the most dastardly animated aardvark since the ant-chasing lout voiced by John Byner in the DePatie-Freleng shorts of the late ’60s and early ’70s (as featured on various syndicated incarnations of The Pink Panther), occasionally proved capable of redemption and wound up taking on a softer tone as the series progressed, eventually retiring and handing over the family business to Cedric in the 1991 series finale.
Many Canadians of my generation, even those who didn’t watch The Raccoons on a regular basis, can likely connect to one of the series’ key holdovers from the original TV specials: catchy music featuring the hit-makers of the day. The best-known, of course, is the series’ closing theme, “Run With Us,” originally recorded by Steve Lunt (here’s the full-length version) and then given a fresh sound by Etobicoke-born Lisa Lougheed, who contributed nine songs to The Raccoons’ overall series soundtrack and played rebellious teenager Lisa Raccoon in the later seasons. Lougheed’s cover of “Run With Us” peaked at #8 on the Canadian Adult Contemporary charts in early 1988 and shows up in the most unusual places. In 2011, it was featured in the closing credits of Hobo With A Shotgun; two years later, at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick, Cathy and I were surprised (and in my case, somewhat delighted) that Lougheed’s “Run With Us” cover was adopted as the official “rev-the-kids-up” song for the Springforth Baptist Youth Conference, whose official theme was based on this quote from the Apostle Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (9:24): “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.”
With a quarter-century elapsing since The Raccoons aired their final episode in 1991, and airings of The Christmas Raccoons and The Raccoons On Ice becoming increasingly rare during that time, I was beginning to fear that the Evergreen Forest crew was slipping into the dustbins of history. So imagine my surprise and delight when series creator Kevin Gillis started musing, in 2015, about the possibility about reviving the show.
As you’ll see in this excellent online interview from earlier this year, however, Gillis is still trying to figure out how to adapt the beloved Canadian characters into the modern age of animation:
Do you keep the ‘classic’ animation style – updating it from the original, or do you create a brand new modern approach to the characters’ style? Further, do you stay 2D as the original was – or do you go CGI – which many of the pre-school shows are produced in? We have opted to update the original designs but kept much of the traditional classic tone and look that The Raccoons were known for. Stay tuned – as the jury is still out!
Whether or not he’s successful with a Raccoons reboot, I have Kevin Gillis realizes how much he and his colleagues have contributed to the cultural upbringing – and environmental awareness – of so many young Canadians. And I hope there will always be a place for Bert, Ralph and Melissa in my heart, at Christmas time and all year long.
At the very least, I hope he’s still got Rita Coolidge’s number on speed-dial. Hey, she played the Stan Rogers Folk Festival in Canso, Nova Scotia two years ago – you never know, she might be up for playing Melissa Raccoon one more time.