You see it every year. When Halloween comes near, that special holiday season feel starts to grow and the thrills of memory-making begins. Then Thanksgiving comes along and it’s time to break out the classic Christmas movies we grew up with. For many, it’s the animated classics such as Frosty the Snowman, Jack Frost, and Santa Claus is Coming to Town. So many people were behind these history-making movies. One of them was Paul Coker Jr, who recently died at age 93 on July 23rd. Coker is survived by his wife of 33 years Rosemary Smithson, stepdaughters Lee Smithson Burd and Carol Smithson.
Born on March 5th 1929, Coker Jr’s artwork first appeared during the 1950s in the Hallmark greeting card designs, of which he was a part of for several decades long. His artwork has been found in numerous publications such as Esquire, Good Housekeeping, Pageant, Look, McCall’s, Playboy, and the New York Enquirer. In 1961 Coker Jr. began illustrating for MAD magazine, where he became known as being part of a group of illustrators named “The Usual Gang of Idiots”. For four decades, Coker would end up illustrating 375 articles for MAD magazine, creating a series called “Horrifying Cliches”.
See some of Paul Coker Jr.’s illustrations from MAD magazine and a study on his drawing techniques, in these two links:
In 1967, Coker Jr. started doing character design and production design for special animated features. His first two projects in that year were The Wacky World of Mother Goose and Cricket on the Hearth. He would go on to create character and production designs for Frosty the Snowman (1969), Santa Claus is Coming to Town (1970), Here Comes Peter Cottontail (1971), ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (1974), Jack Frost (1979), Pinocchio’s Christmas (1980) and many others.
In a 2015 interview, Paul Coker Jr gave a recorded interview with someone from NPR, describing the process in which he would work for Rankin/Bass. Official biographer and historian of Rankin/Bass Productions Rick Goldschmidt also gave his thoughts as to why Coker Jr.’s work is very important in the world of Rankin/Bass.
Paul Coker Jr began by stating, “I’ve got to give credit to the people who wrote the scripts. All I did was read the scripts and then illustrate the characters that the author had written about.”
He continues with, “I freelance and try to live in the loneliest part of the country. And so I never see or talk to anybody. At the time, I just get in the mail a script and do the characters. Send them to whoever it is, probably in this case Arthur Rankin. And if I never hear anything more, other than getting a check, that’s the end of it. So I really don’t discuss the characters or how to do a particular character. I draw what I think this script says and that’s the end of it.”
Further explaining the process he went through to creating a new character, and what happens afterwards, he explains, “The way I work is extremely simple. Someone does the hard work, which is writing the story and about the characters. I read that script and try to imagine what those characters might look like. From then the animators take over and so much work occurs after I draw the simple illustrations. So I never, I have nothing to say about how the animators interpret the work that I’ve done.”
When asked why the movies lasted as long as they have, Paul responded by saying, “I think it’s a simple story. Everything depends on the original idea. The original idea is worth while. Then people will follow that story for a long time. And of course with someone like Frosty the Snowman, those people then have children and so forth. So it’s lasted for a long time.”
Rick Goldschmidt, official Rankin/Bass Historian, added his own thoughts about the significance of Paul and his artwork, “…the reason Paul Coker is such an important part of the Rankin Bass history is the look, the style that his art carries became really the Rankin Bass look, in that Arthur Rankin was looking to get a Christmas card type artwork in animation and he did that with Frosty. And a lot of people asked why in 1969 did Rankin/Bass decide to go cel animation with Frosty as opposed to their very popular stop motion animagic and I tell people well Arthur Rankin really liked the artwork that Paul was doing for Hallmark cards. The Christmas card line for Hallmark was a lot of Paul’s work. And he was trying to emulate that and put it on television in such a way that it really has a nice style to it that the Hallmark cards carried. So that’s really where Paul kind of fits into the history of Rankin/Bass. Obviously the Heat Miser and Snow Miser characters are more popular than ever and also this is the 45th anniversary (as of 2015) of Santa Claus is Coming to Town. And Paul designed the Burgermeister Meisterburger and Winter Warlock and all of those characters as well. He’s a very modest person so he doesn’t like to expand on that hit part of the history.”
After the passing of Paul Coker Jr, Rick wrote touching eulogy in honor of his friend:
Sad news today, my very dear friend Paul Coker, Jr. passed away. I talked to him very recently and he signed a whole bunch of Rankin/Bass postcards for me at 93! You may know his work from Mad Magazine or Hallmark cards, but Rankin/Bass fans know his designs from Frosty the Snowman, The Year Without a Santa Claus and Santa Claus Is Comin’ to town, among many other TV specials. Our friendship goes back to the very beginning of my association with Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass. Paul did the cover for my first book in the mid-1990s, which originally had a yellow background. Since then he did many pieces of art for me and signed thousands of postcards. Early on, we did radio show interviews together and he even did satellite TV interviews for Mervyns Department stores, for me. He appeared in WE ARE SANTA’S ELVES on The Year Without A Santa Claus blu ray, for me. We appeared together at the North Dallas Comic book show. Later Paul told me, he came so that he could hang out with me. Our phone conversations were always filled with laughter. He poked fun at everything…me, his art, Rankin/Bass, etc. We had a very similar sense of humor. I really loved this guy and his work! He was so important to The Enchanted World of Rankin/Bass, I can’t even put it into words. He made doing what I do, so enjoyable. He will live on through his work and the wonderful memories I have of him!
It is in large part because of Paul Coker Jr. that Rankin/Bass developed their signature art style. As a fan of the classic animated features, thank you to Paul for creating the characters that brings a smile to those who watch them every year.