“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is not just one of the best Christmas movies, but one of the best coming of age stories period. From the heartbreaking Island of Misfit Toys to the air-splitting cry of the Abominable Snowman, this Rankin/Bass classic hasn’t lost any value after 50 years.
That’s right, Christmas 2014 marks half-a-decade since the adventure of Rudolph, Hermey the Elf and Yukon Cornelius hit the airwaves.
Appleton is lucky to be home to Maury Laws, the musical director of countless Rankin/Bass holiday specials. Now 90 years old, he’s retired after a long career arranging and composing music for movies and TV shows such as “The Wind in the Willows”, “The Flight of the Dragons”, and the 1977 animated version of “The Hobbit.”
In the true Christmas spirit, Maury graciously agreed to sit down and tell me about his life. Keep reading to learn more about the “Golden Age of Television” and how he made music for Rudolph.
Early Life & Career
Maury’s love affair with music began when he first picked up a guitar at the age of 12. Born in North Carolina, he loved listening to Country music on the radio, a luxury during the Great Depression.
By the age of 16, he began playing with “dance orchestra.” In one weekend, he might travel as far as 100 miles away to perform and then leave 6am sharp on Monday to work at the grocery store.
“Because when you’re young you can do that,” Maury said.
During WWII, he served in the U.S. army on the European campaign. He played in a band formed by some of his fellow soldiers, and eventually ended up performing with professionals in the official division band when the war ended.
“I managed to get home and had made up my mind—by then I was 21, maybe 22—and I made up my mind to follow music,” he said.
Soon after, he began touring with bands throughout the south and east, before settling in New York. There he broke into the blossoming TV scene where he wrote, sang in commercials, and arranged music to make money.
At the age of 40, Maury had already lived through the Great Depression, served in WWII, and had a few decades of music under his belt. But his most famous work was still to come.
Rudolph & The Golden of Age of Television
Maury became the musical director for the fledgling Rankin/Bass company at 40-years-old. The “Golden Age of Television” was just beginning, a name he remembers with some amusement.
“There wasn’t much golden about it,” he said. “People didn’t really know what they were doing. It was just finding its way.”
In fact, the movie was originally only budgeted to run twice by NBC and didn’t include the voice of actor Burl Ives as the memorable snowman narrator.
While Maury and co-founder Jules Bass composed the music for the other Rankin/Bass specials, the tunes to the songs in Rudolph were actually written by a man named Johnny Marks.
Maury would take each song’s melody and a few chords of harmony, which he’d then have to adapt into a full musical arrangement, assigning parts to various instruments and singers.
Before Rudolph was released, they played the completed music for executives at General Electric, which owned NBC at the time. One chairman of the board loved it so much he pushed for a celebrity to give the piece more star power. That’s how Oscar winner and respected family man Burl Ives got involved with the project. After that, well, its fame speaks for itself.
“We were all told it would run twice, and it will be 50 years [old] next year,” Maury said.
During his many years at Rankin/Bass, Maury was officially a freelancer and pursued other work on the side. In his time, he’s worked with an impressive list of stars including Fred Astaire, Danny Kaye, Judy Collins, Angela Lansbury, and many, many more.
It was in New York where Maury met and married his wife Karen, a documentary producer for NBC News. That’s also where they had the first of their three children.
Moving to Appleton
With Maury and Karen both ready for a change in their professional lives, and a five-year-old son ready to start school, the Laws moved to Appleton in the mid ’80s to be closer to Karen’s parents.
But that didn’t mean the end of Maury’s time in music. Lawrence Professor Fred Sturm heard about Maury’s arrival and sought to include him in the Fox Valley music scene.
This would lead Laws to a number of opportunities including writing for the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center (P.A.C) with work on the Pops Concerts and the Fox Valley Symphony.
Fred and Maury also collaborated on a number of pieces together. Some of their most notable work comes from the Baseball Music Project, a symphony and multimedia experience produced in cooperation with the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Fred was working on the project and running behind schedule when he called on Maury to help. Together, they met their deadline and sat next to each other at the opening performance. Fred remembers that moment as one of ultimate gratification.
“It’s about as close as two men can come to giving birth,” Fred said.
The pair have a truly unique connection that spans both personal and professional spheres. Fred compared his friendship with Maury to that of the monster and Doctor Frankenstein from the 1974 Mel Brooks comedy, Young Frankenstein.
For Fred, Maury has been a father figure and mentor, but also a creative cohort, a dear friend, and even something like akin to a brother.
“I would have to say he’s about as much my brother as he is my father,” Fred said. “We have a wonderful friendship.”
And Maury has no less love for Fred describing him as, “One of the world’s great guys. Maury said he owes much to Fred welcoming him into the Appleton music scene.
While many know “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” as one of the quintessential Christmas movies, Maury didn’t realize its importance until his move to Wisconsin.
Even to this day, Maury receives e-mails asking for music and thanking him for his work on the Rankin/Bass specials. He’s even had people show up on his doorstep asking, “Did you write that song?” To which Maury replies, “Guilty.”
Perhaps the most rewarding moment came last year, as he was celebrating his 90th birthday. The P.A.C. had a 10th anniversary concert and Maury had written a piece for the event which was performed by the renowned BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Keith Lockhart.
At one point during the show, Lockhart actually took a moment to point Maury out in the audience and tell everyone he had just turned 90. That’s when Maury got to hear about 2,000 people sing him, “Happy Birthday.” Something he’ll never forget.
“I don’t see what I do, it’s what I do,” he said. “You don’t applaud the butcher for cutting a beautiful pork chop. Other people live their life without any applause . . . I feel very blessed and fortunate to have people care that much about what I’m doing.”
Not bad considering Rudolph was only supposed to run twice. Not bad at all.
- Visit Maury Laws’ website to learn more about his life and career.