It was the Sixties — a time of counter culture and social revolution, radical trends and liberal attitudes. And in 1964, an unlikely iconoclast for the times was born: the “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” Christmas special. Millions of viewers later and more than 40 years after its debut, Rudolph’s stop-motion animation tale of individualism continues to charm television audiences.
A refresher: The surprisingly complex story follows young Rudolph as he struggles with his very shiny nose (like a light bulb!) and his exile from all of the other reindeer. He soon meets and befriends fellow social outcast Hermey the Elf. (Hermey wants to be a dentist, not a toy-making elf.) Chased by the Abominable Snow Monster, they are saved by eccentric prospector Yukon Cornelius, who is looking for gold and silver that tastes like peppermint. All three flee to the island of Misfit Toys, an oddball, free-thinking toy colony. (Hey, it was the Sixties, remember?) Unable to stay, they return to Christmasville where a bad storm is threatening to cancel Christmas. Cue Rudolph to the rescue.
Robert May wrote the original tale in 1939, which was adapted into the famous song written by his brother-in-law Johnny Marks in 1949, when Gene Autry made it famous:
Max Fleischer created a Rudolph animated short in 1944, followed by the version most of us know — the TV classic created by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass for NBC and General Electric. Back then, they called the process of stop motion photography “Animagic.”
“The Rankin/Bass TV special has stood the test of time for many reasons. One of the biggest reasons is the heart and warmth Romeo Muller wrote into it with the assistance of Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass. The animation style was wonderful and beautifully done,” Rick Goldschmidt, historian and biographer for Rankin/Bass, said in an e-mail. The Johnny Marks’ songs are excellent….The TV musical Spectacular worked on all levels.”
The Rankin/Bass production took an international cast and crew. Excluding narrator Burl Ives’ booming rat-pack voice as Sam the Snowman, the three main characters (Rudolph, Hermey and Yukon Cornelius) were all voiced by Canadians. Much of the animation process was executed in Japan. It took one year, more than $500,000 and 100 people working on 22 sets to bring Rudolph into living rooms. Rankin and Bass went on to produce other holiday specials including “Frosty the Snowman,” “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.”
Now shown on CBS, the digitally re-mastered special drew an astounding 11.7 million viewers on Dec. 4.
“What’s fantastic about Rudolph is that it’s the very beginnings of an art form. There is a crudeness to it…but it’s cool to see how imperfect it is,” said Lauren Faust, a supervising producer for the Cartoon Network. She remembers the show fondly at a time before DVDs made the show constantly accessible. “Everything today is about [computer graphics] and 3-D animation. I think it would be very cool to see the [old] art form revived.”
Until then, we’ll always have Rudolph, the reindeer who’s gone down in history (like Columbus!):