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The Truth About Hardrock, Coco and Joe

Stuff you didn't know about the three little men two feet high from Oak Lawn's resident pop culture historian.

If you’re a Chicagoan of a certain age—and we won’t say what age—the annual airing of Hardrock, Coco and Joe on WGN was no doubt part of your holiday tradition.

The black-and-white “cartoonette” employed all of the state-of-the-art technology available to stop-action animators in 1951. Buried in shadows and set high above a spinning earth, a chorus of male yodelers sang the story of Santa’s three favorite helpers acted out by scary Laplander-looking elves and a Santa that bore a striking resemblance to its Chinese-American creator.

Children were first introduced to the “story so queer” about Hardrock, Coco and Joe by the genial host of WGN’s Garfield Goose and Friends, Frazier Thomas, on Dec. 18, 1956.

WATCH THE video of 'Hardrock, Coco and Joe.'

The two-minute, forty-five-second animated short was created by a fledgling animation studio called Centaur Productions for a music publisher, Hill and Range Songs Inc., that wanted a cartonette to go with its holiday ditty The Three Little Drawfs (sic). Centaur would also go on to produce a similar, stop-action short that has also become a cult classic, Suzy Snowflake.

While Hardrock and Coco had actual jobs assisting Santa on his midnight flight as reindeer teamster and navigator, Joe was generally useless, but Santa brought him along anyway “because he loved him so.”

So why does Hardrock, Coco and Joe continue to endure 60 years later and reduce most lifelong Chicagoans to an emotional puddle of sap?

who is also a Hardrock, Coco and Joe expert.

“The appeal of [the Centaur films] is the stop-motion animation,” Goldschmidt said. “It’s almost like decorations moving. It captured a believable world of puppetry that you can’t capture on a computer.”

Aside from Centaur Productions and Hill and Range Songs, the only credits noted on the IMDB website, little else is known about the production of Hardrock, Coco and Joe.

Here are a few things you probably never knew about “the three little men two feet high.”

  • Before Hardrock, Coco and Joe became a Chicago-thing, it was a Johnstown, Penn.-thing. While WGN is often credited for being the first station to air HCJ, it was actually shown on WJAC-TV in 1952 to fill airtime in the broadcast day—four years before Frazier Thomas showed it on Garfield Goose.
  • Special-effects pioneer Wah Ming Chang, a Chinese-American sculptor who rose through Walt Disney’s Models and Effects Department developing the wooden model for Pinocchio so Disney’s animators could study its body movements, handcrafted the puppet-models for Hardrock, Coco and Joe.
  • Santa, who has an Asian flair, is said to be based on Chang.
  • Chang and an associate formed Centaur Productions in 1948 with the express purpose of creating commercials for early television. The studio folded in the early 1950s after a failed attempt to animate hand-cranked toys with sound.
  • Chang would go on to become a major designer for film and television, creating special effects and props for the 1961 film The Time Machine, the phaser in Star Trek, and the Pillsbury Doughboy. He also designed the early prototype Barbie doll for Mattel.
  • Stuart Hambien, a Christian songwriter, who prior to his conversion by evangelist Billy Graham was a hopeless drunk and gambler, wrote the title song for HCJ. Hambien went on to pen such popular songs as This Ole House and It Is No Secret (What God Can Do), inspired by a remark by John Wayne.
  • The Les Tucker singers are often mistakenly credited as the male yodelers that sing the famous chorus, “O lee o-lady, Oh-Lady, i-Oh.” According to Goldschmidt, the Les Tucker singers weren’t involved in the HCJ production, but worked out a sponsorship deal with Frazier Thomas and re-recorded the song, emulating the original singers as close as possible. The records were sold at Walgreen’s.
  • For Chang and Hambien, their work on HCJ was but a blip in their long successful careers in Hollywood and is not even mentioned in their biographies.

The Enchanted World of Rankin-Bass, The Making of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Rick Goldschmidt's latest book Mad Monster Party can be purchased from Miser Bros. Press.

READ MORE Rick Goldschmidt stories:

Madeline McCalip December 16, 2011 at 02:16 PM
Hardrock, Coco and Joe is very near and dear to my heart. It was my favorite cartoon when I was a child. I would wait with great excitement every year to see it. I still love it dearly Thank you for an excellent article!
Jimmy D December 16, 2011 at 02:24 PM
There’s something so heartwarming watching this again. I remember that when Christmas rolled around when I was a kid, you really had to plan to watch the Christmas TV shows so you wouldn’t miss them. It made them very special and everyone including mom and dad watched them with you. Now it seems like everything is available on DVD, On-Demand or on the computer and it’s not so special. I miss watching Rudolph or Charlie Brown Christmas on Channel 2 and running to the kitchen for a snack during the commercial breaks. It made Christmas more magical to me.
Grunty December 16, 2011 at 03:33 PM
I gotta tell you, this thing scared the crap out of me when I was a kid. I did watch all the other stuff, but I never wanted to watch this one.
Eddie Simmons December 04, 2012 at 06:31 AM
Hardrock,Coco and Joe takes me so far back when I watch it,It makes me feel like a kid again.bigE4306
Nancy Moore December 22, 2013 at 10:32 PM
HCJ was my favorite Christmas program to watch growing up. I had almost forgotten about it til one day a coworker was singing its theme. There was that instant Chicago pop culture connection. One year while living in Oregon & before widespread internet access, I called WGN (& quickly learned just how popular this little animation really was.) They were airing HCJ, Suzy Snowflake & Frosty in a few days. I did not have access to the WGN channel. So I made a call to my brother in Phoenix. The afternoon of Christmas Eve I didn't hear the postman knock & I missed a package. When I got to the post office they had just closed. I showed them my ticket & they let me in. There was a VHS marked "The Bozo Show." I rushed home & popped it into the VCR as quick as a young child, then as I sang every word (I had not heard it since childhood) & was stunned that I remembered the words, the tears streamed. It is the best Christmas gift I ever received.

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