Want to feel old(er), Baby Boomers? 2014 marks the 50th annual broadcast of the Rankin-Bass animated Christmas special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. And while Rudolph’s small-screen debut was December 6, 1964 (on a Sunday afternoon, no less; It’s hard to imagine a TV network nowadays giving up an hour of the NFL’s Sunday omnipresence for a children’s program), tonight’s golden anniversary airing makes this an appropriate time to salute this beloved Yuletide perennial. And, since I’m sure by now you’re all well versed in the show’s basic storyline–red nose, dentist elf, prospector, misfit toys, foggy Christmas Eve, “Bumbles bounce!”–I’d like to offer up a sleighful of fun facts and trivia about everybody’s favorite neon-nosed ungulate.
1. While Rudolph the small-screen star is turning 50, he’s actually been eligible for AARP membership for quite a few years. The character made his debut in 1939 as the star of a holiday giveaway booklet for the Chicago-based Montgomery War retail chain, thus proving that the commercialization of Christmas is hardly a recent phenomenon. Conceived by M-W ad writer Robert L. May (who had to work on the project while his first wife was dying of cancer in the summer of ’39), the tale of the outcast reindeer proved to be a hit with the company’s customers–in spite of initial fears that Rudolph’s glowing red proboscis would remind folk of a drunkard’s “gin blossoms.” More than 2 million copies of the original book were distributed.
2. In 1944 Rudolph hit movie theaters as the star of a cartoon short directed by legendary animator Max Fleischer. Five years later, May’s brother-in-law, songwriter and record executive Johnny Marks, decided to set the story to music (Montgomery Ward had graciously given May back the rights to his creation). It was Marks who added the familiar opening lines (“You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen…”) to the original poem. First sung by Harry Brannon, it was “B” cowboy crooner Gene Autry’s version later that year that would go on to reach number one on the pop charts and sell millions of copies. Over the decades to come, such diverse performers as Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, The Supremes, The Jackson 5, Ringo Starr, Destiny’s Child and DMX would offer their take on the tune.
3. With kids and adults around the world familiar with the character, it’s not surprising that producers Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass, who had already found success with their Tales of the Wizard of Oz syndicated cartoon series, would set their company (then known as Videocraft International) to work on a stop-motion animation rendering of Rudolph. Scriptwriter Romeo Muller apparently didn’t have a version of May’s book, but had heard the song enough times to now the basics. It was Muller who fleshed out the poem with such elements as Hermey, the elf who wants to pass on a toymaking career and take up dental hygiene; Clarice, the young doe who thinks Rudolph’s “cute”; Yukon Cornelius, a prospector in search of “silver and gold” (and another valuable property that was for years forgotten–more about this to come); the Abominable Snowmonster of the North (Not, as many Boomers recall, the Abominable Snowman. The latter lives in the Himalayas in Asia, of course, while “Bumble” is found closer to the North Pole); and the residents of the Island of Misfit Toys.
4. Speaking of those misfit toys, what some folk may not recall is that, when Rudolph initially aired in 1964, the show ended with Santa and his reindeer making their Christmas Eve transglobal journey minus a stop to pick up the forsaken playthings, as St. Nick had promised. This actually led to a letter-writing campaign to NBC and Videocraft bemoaning the toys’ abandonment and demanding something be done about it. And so it was that Rankin-Bass made a special final scene for subsequent broadcasts in which Santa stops off to take Charlie-in-the Box, the polka-dot elephant, the train with a sqaure-wheeled caboose, and the little doll with no outwardly visible flaw to new homes. By the way, that doll’s misfit status was later revealed to have come from depression and abandonment issues (!) after her owner got rid of her. Take that, Jessie from Toy Story 2!
5. Adding this sequence, however, meant making a few cuts in the program. And one of the things that got excised was an explanation for why Yukon kept licking the end of his pickaxe after throwing it up and letting it stick the ground. You might have thought he was looking for that elusive silver and gold, but he was in fact taste-testing for the even more elusive “peppermint mine.” As luck would have it, he does (or ddoesn’t, depending upon which version of the show you happen to be watching) indeed strike a particularly rich vein of the “sweet stuff” near (where else?) Santa’s arctic workshop.
6. Anyone who saw Rudolph as a kid and then later watched 1958’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof might have a little shocked hearing Sam the Snowman’s voice coming out of the tyrannical Big Daddy. Well, getting Burl Ives to serve as the special’s animated narrator/host was one of the keys to Rankin/Bass convincing NBC to carry it. The network had some ratings success a couple of years earlier with Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, but the field of holiday kid’s fare was still a new one, and the presence of actor/singer Ives–who won a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award in ’58 for The Big Country–would, it was assumed, give older viewers a reason to tune in.
7. As for the other voice actors, they were part of the studio’s in-house crew and most were from Canada (I guess being closer to the North Pole helped them in their roles). Let’s have a special holiday remembrance for actress Billie Mae Richards, who later played young Billy Bond in the ’60s King Kong cartoon and who died in 2010, as the voice of Rudolph, and Larry D. Mann, who passed away earlier this year, as Yukon Cornelius. And here’s a shout-out to Paul Soles, still active at 84, was gave life to Hermey the tooth-extracting elf (By the way, what was wrong with having one elf out of the whole bunch be a dentist? With all those candy canes and other sweets lying around the workshop, you would think Santa would be happy to be able to give his helpers some free dental care.)
8. Along with using his original title song, Rankin-Bass was able to get Johnny Marks to write eight additional songs for their show. Along with “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas,” which has become a Yuletide standard in its own right, such instantly recognizable tunes as “We Are Santa’s Elves,” “There’s Always Tomorrow,” “We’re a Couple of Misfits” and “Silver and Gold” put the Rudolph soundtrack in the upper echelon of TV Christmas specials, right up there with such later Rankin-Bass fare as Jimmy Durante singing the title song to Frosty the Snowman (1969) and “Heat Miser” and “Snow Miser” from The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974). And while we’re at it, let us not forget to mention a couple of other favorites: Vince Guaraldi’s jazzy score for A Charlie Brown Christmas and “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and “Fahoo Foraze” (that’s how I spells it, anyway!) from How the Grinch Stole Chritsmas.
9. And, now that I did mention them, fans should take note that next year marks the golden anniversary of Charles Schulz and Bill Melendez’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, and 2016 will find How the Grinch Stole Christmas, from Dr. Seuss by way of master animator Chuck Jones, celebrating its own 50th birthday. Along with Rudolph, this trio of programs is rightfully considered the “big three” of animated TV holiday fare, and rarely has a year passed since the late ’60s that each has failed to have a prime time broadcast…and still rack up impressive ratings.
10. If you’re of a certain age (like me) and watch Rudolph waiting for the scene where Santa Claus comes riding down the snow-covered hills on a giant electric razor…well, your memory’s playing a little trick on you. That classic bit of Christmas commercialism came from a series of 1960s TV spots by the Norelco company (whose very name, as you recall, says “Merry Christmas”) and was a different stop-motion animated St. Nick. The Rudolph crew, however, were featured in promos wrapping and giving out fine GE appliances when General Electric was the original sponsor of the show.
11. And just what did happen to all those “Ani-magic” models used in the creation of the special? Sorry, memorabilia collectors, but nearly all of them were destroyed or lost over the years (Talk about your misfit toys!). In 2005, though, an eight-inch Santa model and a four-inch Rudolph were found tucked away by the family of a former Rankin-Bass secretary, who managed to save them from the scrap heap. The fragile but still relatively intact figures were restored to their 1964 condition (yes, Rudolph’s nose does light up!) and currently make the rounds at toy and nsotalgia conventions and trade shows.
Where does Rudolph rank among the most memorable classic TV Christmas specials? Vote in MovieFanFare’s poll here.
Did Rudolph get a raw deal from Santa Claus? Read how guest writer Jessica Pickens viewed Kris Kringle’s behavior in the TV special and 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street here.