The most famous reindeer 0
The reindeer with the shiny red nose will be making more history this Christmas.
When CBS broadcasts Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer for the 44th time, it will become the longest-running, highest rated television special of all time. It remains the best known of the Rankin/Bass Animagic classics.
Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass literally defined the holidays on the small screen. Both men came from differing backgrounds. Rankin joined the navy right out of high school and was a gunner on arctic convoys from Britain to the Russian port of Murmansk. In late 1942, a U-boat sank his ship off Norway. Growing up in Philadelphia, Bass survived a bout with scarlet fever when he was age 15.
The two met in 1955 in New York City and entered a partnership that stood the test of time. Rankin was the art director over at ABC. Ambitious, he began producing commercials for such clients as the Paris & Peart ad agency, where Bass also worked. They decided to pool their talents and form their own company. They first produced an ad for General Electric. It was successful and led the collaborators to make an animated one-hour special called Return to Oz. The ratings for that program were fair, leading Rankin to pitch the idea of a Christmas special to GE.
While a popular song, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer had yet to be adapted for film. Rankin wanted to change that. However, he had to convince his Greenwich Village neighbour -Johnny Marks, the famous song's composer -to accept the concept. But Marks didn't want to do the special.
"He was very protective of the song," Rankin, now 85, once told an interviewer. "The song provided a very large income to Marks and he was afraid that over-exposure of the hit song might interfere with its success as a popular song. I eventually persuaded him to do the show and he wrote some very memorable songs in addition to Rudolph."
Production began in earnest with the voice work being
recorded at the RCA studios in Toronto. They used numerous Canadian actors for the special including Paul Soles, who voiced Rudolph's elfin partner Hermey, Larry Mann, who portrayed the eccentric Yukon Cornelius, Paul Kligman (Donner and Comet), and Billie Mae Richards, who, despite being female was an expert at speaking like a small boy, was tapped to play Rudolph.
In the original pre-production, there was no character called Sam the Snowman, who would narrate the tale. However, GE wanted a big name star to sell the special to the network so they brought in Burl Ives.
An acclaimed folk singer, author and Oscar-winning actor, Ives had been blacklisted in 1952 for co-operating with the House Unamerican Activities Committee and named fellow singer Pete Seeger as a possible Communist (they reunited decades later for a benefit concert). In Rankin's eyes, Ives was the ideal choice for narrator.
"Who better than to portray Sam than America's leading balladeer. Burl looked like the character," Rankin once remarked.
Filming was done in Japan where production costs were cheaper than in North America. Stop motion animation is a technique which makes a physically manipulated object appear to move. The object, or in this case puppet, is moved by very small amounts between individually photographed frames, creating the illusion of movement when the series of frames is played as a continuous sequence. Rankin flew to Japan to supervise the filming, a multi-day trip by prop plane that involved stops in San Francisco, Hawaii and Guam.
Using the premise of Johnny Marks' song, Rankin and Bass hired script writer Romeo Muller to piece together a screenplay. Muller infused the tale, which originated as a 1939 short story in a Montgomery Ward's department store Christmas brochure, with an interesting cast of supporting characters that ultimately made the special memorable. Yukon Cornelius and the Island of Misfit Toys were Muller's creations.
On the evening of Sunday, Dec. 6, 1964, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer debuted on NBC as an instalment of the General Electric Fantasy Hour. It picked up an astounding 55 per cent of the American viewing audience and was a smash hit.
However, Rankin and Bass weren't done tinkering with the film. When it was rebroadcast in 1965, it included a new ending. A massive write-in campaign by the public demanded that Santa Claus return to the Island of Misfit Toys and pick up the discarded toys. In the 1964 version, the story ends with Santa departing the North Pole with Rudolph leading the team. There was no resolution to the plight of the Misfit Toys. Hence the original ending, called the "Peppermint scene," was trimmed.
The lost minute-long scene did answer a few things that were left hanging in the story. For instance, it revealled that Yukon Cornelius was searching not for silver and gold, but a peppermint mine. Donner also reaffirms that he is no longer ashamed of his red-nosed son.
The special returned each Christmas, switching networks to CBS where it is occasionally broadcast around the American Thanksgiving to usher in the holiday shopping season. While there are many reasons why it still resonates with viewers, Paul Soles believes there's a message behind all the puppetry.
"It's a nice little inspiration for kids," Soles said in a 1998 interview. "Get out there and do it. Believe in what you believe, take your own path, be true to yourself."
The late Burl Ives never believed the television special would have lasted as long as it has. In an interview years after, he spoke about how his voice work in Rudolph changed his life.
"When I tour across the country, I am recognized as Sam by everyone from the airline stewardesses down to the smallest of children."
Ives, who died in 1995, even constructed wood ornaments of the characters and placed them on his front lawn.
"The role of Sam came natural to me because I like singing to children because they like good songs. I worked on several projects with Rankin/Bass, but Rudolph is still the most popular."