Note: Some of this research, and an interview with the author, is being included in a report on CBS Sunday Morning, which should air Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016.
While I was doing the research for my recent blog post on the history of the Easter Bunny, I noticed that the Library of Congress has made available on its website two brief excerpts from the 1971 TV Easter special Here Comes Peter Cottontail. The animated special starred Danny Kaye in several voice roles, and the excerpts are part of the Music Division’s Danny Kaye and Sylvia Fine Collection. In the first excerpt, Danny Kaye, as Seymour Sassafras, introduces the story:
Here Comes Peter Cottontail first aired in 1971. I was not yet three years old at the time, but I have vivid memories of seeing the show as a child, probably in repeat showings over the following years. Like some of the other holiday specials of the era, it was a surreal story featuring such elements as magical bubble gum, a talking caterpillar, and a time machine called the “yester-morrow-bile.” I didn’t know it at the time, but despite the special’s very 1970s feel, many of its elements had a long and distinguished literary and cultural history. I thought would be fun to explore that here.
We’ll begin with the idea of a rabbit named “Peter Cottontail,” which seems to derive from not one but two classic series of children’s books featuring anthropomorphic animals. The most famous of these were written and illustrated by Beatrix Potter in the early 20th century. Potter’s books featured both wild and domesticated animals living alongside human farmers in an idealized English countryside. The first in the series was The Tale of Peter Rabbit, first self-published in 1901, and commercially published in 1902, which established the tradition of a rabbit named Peter. Potter herself had had a pet rabbit named Peter Piper as a child, which explained her use of the name for her most famous protagonist. Her fictional Peter also had a sibling named Cotton-tail, which supplies the second half of Peter Cottontail’s name. Peter and his siblings feature in several of Potter’s books, which you can read online: The Tale of Peter Rabbit, The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, and The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies.
Only a few years after Potter’s books began to appear, American naturalist and conservationist Thornton W. Burgess began writing his own series of animal tales, collectively known as the Old Mother West Wind books. Burgess’s books featured a character named Peter Rabbit as well, due to Potter’s influence. According to the Thornton W. Burgess Research League, he publicly acknowledged his debt to Potter in his autobiography, with the following words:
When I began writing stories for my own small boy, a rabbit was already Peter and there was no changing the name…. I like to think that Miss Potter gave Peter a name known the world over, while I with [my illustrator Harrison] Cady’s help perhaps made him a character.
Burgess’s Peter Rabbit was certainly a character. One of his character traits in the books is a tendency to put on airs, which drives the plot of one of Burgess’s most popular books, The Adventures of Peter Cottontail (1917), which you can read here. In this story, Peter decides his real name, Peter Rabbit, is too common, and changes it to Peter Cottontail. It’s only a temporary change, however, and by the end of the book he’s back to being Peter Rabbit.
(The Library of Congress has put another of Burgess’s Peter Rabbit books, Mrs. Peter Rabbit, online at read.gov.)
By 1917, then, “Peter Cottontail” was a popular name for a fictional, anthropomorphic rabbit. That rabbit was not, however, the famous “Easter Bunny.” The two ideas came together over thirty years later, in the song “Here Comes Peter Cottontail.” The song, which tells a simple story of the Easter Bunny delivering baskets filled with candy, eggs, and flowers, was written by Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins in 1949 and first recorded by Melvin Shiner in 1950. Shiner’s version was a hit, but Nelson and Rollins had even bigger ambitions. In 1950 the king of holiday songs was Gene Autry; his 1947 hit “Here Comes Santa Claus” had been followed by his even more successful 1949 recording of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Nelson and Rollins pitched the song to Autry, who recorded it and sent it to #3 on the Billboard country charts and #5 on the Billboard Hot 100. Autry also sang it onscreen, in the 1951 movie “Hills of Utah.” The Autry Foundation put that version online at YouTube, and you can watch it here.
So by 1950, Peter Rabbit had become Peter Cottontail, and Peter Cottontail had become the Easter Bunny. But none of the works that contributed elements to the “Peter Cottontail” idea had enough of a plot to be the basis of a TV special. Instead, the producers were inspired by a 1957 children’s book by Priscilla and Otto Friedrich. Otto Friedrich (1929-1995) was a well known journalist and historian who served as an editor at the New York Daily News, Newsweek, the Saturday Evening Post, and Time. With his wife Priscilla, he wrote six children’s books from 1957 until 1965. The first of these, called The Easter Bunny that Overslept, was the inspiration for Here Comes Peter Cottontail.
As the book’s title suggests, it’s about an Easter Bunny who oversleeps, missing Easter entirely. For the rest of the year, he has to try to give away Easter eggs on other holidays. Eventually, Santa Claus takes the bunny under his wing and gets him ready for the following Easter. The Easter Bunny that Overslept is still protected by copyright, but you can see its bibliographic information here.
The TV special Here Comes Peter Cottontail was produced and directed by the team of Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin, Jr., who had previously created similar TV specials such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. All these previous shows used a similar formula: begin with a hit holiday song which could be featured in the show, find or create a story, and animate the tale in their signature stop-motion style.
All these previous shows also had another thing in common: they were written by Romeo Muller, whom Rankin and Bass also hired for the screenplay of Here Comes Peter Cottontail. Muller added crazy, wacky, almost psychedelic elements to the show. Beginning with the basic idea of an Easter Bunny oversleeping from the Friedrichs’ book, Muller added a corporate environment for the Easter Bunny to work in, in which individual bunnies compete for promotion to Chief Easter Bunny. When Peter Cottontail (voiced by Casey Kasem) is chosen as Chief Easter Bunny, his rival January Q. Irontail (voiced by Vincent Price) sets out to sabotage him and destroy Easter. He causes Peter to oversleep by feeding Peter’s rooster magic bubblegum, so that when he crows the sound is carried far away by the bubbles. Where the Friedrich’s book simply had the Easter Bunny waiting for each holiday in turn, Muller added a time machine, the “yester-morrow-bile,” owned by Seymour Sassafras and piloted by a French caterpillar named Antoine, both voiced by Danny Kaye. In the Library’s second excerpt, Sassafras introduces Antoine and the Yester-morrow-bile.
In the rest of the show, Peter is able to save Easter from Irontail and reclaim his title as Chief Easter Bunny, with the help of Sassafras and Antoine.
Here Comes Peter Cottontail was a successful program in its day, and certainly my generation of Americans remember it with amusement and fondness. Moreover, on its 25th anniversary it was followed by a computer-animated sequel, Here Comes Peter Cottontail: The Movie. For all these reasons, it’s a pleasant reminder of Easters past.
Finally, remember that a very important part of this program’s history comes from folklore: the idea of the Easter Bunny itself. You can read all about that at my previous blog post, right here at Folklife Today.