“How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” “Frosty the Snowman.”
These are the gold-standard, classic Christmas TV specials. All debuted in the 1960s. They air every year on ABC or CBS and continue to draw millions of viewers, a blend of bright-eyed kids and nostalgia-hungry adults.
A suburban Atlanta mother and her twin daughters are trying to add to that treasured canon with a new 30-minute CBS special airing Friday, Nov. 25. It’s based on the best-selling book “The Elf on the Shelf,” which came out in 2005 and has since sold more than 1.6 million copies.
“TV was a natural next step,” said Carol Aebersold, the Powder Springs mother who co-authored the book with daughter Chanda Bell, who lives in Loganville.
The origins of the basic elf story itself are murky, but the women think elements came from Scandinavia, where their family has roots. In the 1970s, as they explain it, the Aebersold household had a pixie doll elf named Fisbee who appeared every Thanksgiving. He would fly to the North Pole each night to tell whether the Aebersold children were “naughty or nice,” playing off the 1934 song “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” The elf’s presence helped keep children well-behaved so they could get the presents they want come Christmas.
In 2005, Aebersold and Bell wrote a book explaining their family’s holiday custom. Unable to find a publishing company to sign on, the family published “The Elf on the Shelf” on its own and sold the book by word of mouth. They packaged it with a toy elf that kids could name themselves.
The box liner read: “Adopt a new family tradition this holiday season!”
By the end of 2007, it had sold more than 200,000 copies and Hollywood production companies began calling, eager to buy the rights to the book.
But the road from storybook to TV screen was not an open highway.
“Through these conversations and negotiations, we realized that Hollywood’s idea of the North Pole is not necessarily ours,” said Christa Pitts, Bell’s twin sister who handles much of the business aspects of their family-owned company, CCA and B. “They didn’t necessarily ‘get it’ the same way we did.”
“We didn’t want a new-fangled North Pole,” Bell added. “We didn’t want a new-fangled elf.”
Enter a young Midtown animation company, Trick 3D, which did mostly commercials for ad agencies and networks such as the Weather Channel and the Cartoon Network. In 2007, the Aebersolds hired the company to develop the “Elf on the Shelf” website, www.elfontheshelf.com. The result was an immersive 3-D North Pole featuring an entire town, including Mrs. Claus’ kitchen, a shipping yard and reindeer stables.
The owner of Trick 3D, Chad Eikhoff, had attended McEachern High School in Powder Springs with Bell and Pitts. When he learned the Aebersolds were thinking of developing a TV special, Eikhoff pitched his own company for the job. After all, Eikhoff was familiar with the family’s vision because of his company’s work on the website.
“We trusted each other,” Carol Aebersold said. “They knew what we knew.”
But Trick 3D, founded in 2006, was no Pixar, the giant animation company known for “Toy Story” and “The Incredibles.” And the Aebersolds’ CCA and B was no HarperCollins. Where was the money going to come from?
The Aebersolds said they took every spare penny from the existing publishing company and raided their 401(k) accounts, well into the seven figures. By March 2010, in a cabin in the North Georgia community of Big Canoe, they created their own production company: Big Canoe Entertainment.
The group also included Eikhoff and Tara Burtchaell from Trick 3D, independent film producer Kenneth Waddell and Catherine Scorsese, daughter of director Martin Scorsese and herself a set design specialist. Waddell and Scorsese provided the Atlanta crew with Hollywood-insider knowledge and deal-making skills.
The next step was to create a story. The book is more an explanation of the “Elf on the Shelf” and what he does each Christmas season, rather than a heart-tugging narrative. Waddell wrote a first script. Over several months, it went through 12 drafts.
“At one point, Mom and I locked ourselves in a room and took our own stab at it,” Bell said.
As deadlines bore down, Eikhoff showed a rough storyboard sketch to the Aebersolds, but they were not pleased with the story. Bell canceled an overseas trip and members of Trick 3D and the family worked together to rewrite the script yet again, creating a new elf character, a poet named Wordsworth.
Finally, they had a story. To save money, they brought in no-name, non-union actors — mostly from Atlanta — to do the voices. They penned their own music. Trick 3D videotaped Bell dancing to help choreograph the animated elves.
The program focuses on Taylor McTuttle, a 9-year-old skeptical about Christmas. His two younger sisters — twins who look suspiciously like child versions of Bell and Pitts — adopt an elf they name Chippey, who has to convince the boy that Christmas is real.
The moral of the story, as Bell explains: “Christmas is something more than what you do. It’s what you carry in your heart.
“The hope is, after 22 minutes [not counting commercials], you care about Chippey and Taylor.”
The storytelling has a deliberate timeless feeling. There are no gratuitous references to Justin Bieber or Santa texting on his iPhone. Even the original songs feel sweetly old-fashioned.
By this past summer, they had a final show ready to be sold as a DVD in time for Thanksgiving. But to propel sales, they wanted a major broadcast network to air it.
ABC, home of the Grinch and Charlie Brown, already had its own elf-oriented special, “Prep & Landing,” which debuted in 2009. CBS, which is America’s most popular network and airs “Rudolph” and “Frosty,” was more interested.
In late July, CBS execs screened a final version of “The Elf on the Shelf: An Elf’s Story.” Feedback was positive. One of the network’s senior vice presidents said he owned the book and had an elf in his family. Less than two hours later, the Aebersolds got the call: CBS was in.
“I fell in love with the idea,” said Jodi Roth, senior VP for specials at CBS. “I saw the animation and said, ‘Oh my God! This is so beautiful!’ I had to have it. It was really that simple.
“And the story was so heartfelt. It has the makings of becoming a holiday classic.”
Becoming a holiday classic, though, is no easy task. “It’s very hard to make these stick,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.
“It’s like trying to get a new dish into your Thanksgiving dinner. In the end, it’s still turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy and cranberries.”
It’s also why the same 30-some Christmas songs are heard on the radio year-in, year-out.
“Adults want their kids to get the same, warm, footy-pajama feeling when they watch these shows as they did,” Thompson said.
Thompson, who hasn’t yet seen “Elf on the Shelf,” said it’s a smart move to emphasize tradition.
“But it’s one thing to say it’s a new tradition,” he said. “It’s another thing to actually be a tradition.”
“To me,” Bell said, “it’s more of a legacy. I hope my grandchildren will see this one day.”
Charity event preview
“The Elf on the Shelf: An Elf’s Story” screening and fund raiser for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Wayne Brady will be the emcee and will sing Christmas Carols with the audience.
screening starts at 4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 20, but at 2:30 p.m., there are plenty of games and food for the kids to enjoy.
$28.60-$51.45, after fees. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 1-800-982-2787, www.ticketmaster.com
“The Elf on the Shelf: An Elf’s Story”
8:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 25, CBS.
By Rodney Ho, Radio & TV Talk