Lighting Up TV Screens For 48 Years: A Brief History Of Rudolph

It’s been 48 years since the holiday stop-motion perennial “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” first hit TV screens on Dec. 6, 1964. This year, things were looking down for Rudolph, when Deadline.com headlined that the CBS broadcast was off 28% in ratings from last year. One commenter said the special was timeworn and remake-worthy, others said that their own kids were watching on other platforms (iPad, DVD, etc.). Is Rudolph headed for the Island of Poorly Rated Specials?

Still, it’s been a good run. A few years ago, we interviewed the program’s co-producer, Arthur Rankin, Jr., who filled us in on the genesis of the show and why he thinks it’s lasted as long as it has.

Rudolph got his start as a Montgomery Ward store promotion.

“The President of General Electric Housewares division had worked at a department store in Chicago. Rudolph, the original story, was written by one of their copywriters -- it was just a two-page story. And he remembered that and he liked the promotion.

Then that little story became the song, because the composer of the song and the writer of the story were related by marriage. That was it. Gene Autry, a famous cowboy star at that time, recorded it, and it became a hit. Johnny Marks, who owned the song, was my neighbor in Greenwich Village.  So I said to him, ‘That character could make a nice Christmas special.’ He was reluctant to do that, because he was receiving a good deal of ASCAP money on a yearly basis. But he finally agreed. General Electric put it on the air.”

Occasionally, a song would drive the script.

“Johnny Marks would write a song, like ‘Holly, Jolly Christmas’ and we would create the scene in the film to accommodate that song. That was very easy, because Burl Ives just sang it in front of a series of shots where they're building a Christmas tree…. [But] ‘Island of Misfit Toys’ he wrote because we had created [the toys] in the script. That was a dramatic situation that we created. He wrote the song to complement that. So it was both ways.”

Rudolph was done in Animagic, a process Rankin discovered in Japan and later trademarked.

“The figures are about eight inches tall; obviously, the Abominable Snowman is taller. Everything was in proportion. They’re made of a variety of things: plastic, cloth, wood, armature. We shot 24 frames to a second, and every movement requires one frame, so there are 24 moves per second that come out. If the picture runs an hour-and-a-half, we're talking about 150,000 moves. If there are six characters, it'd be six people, unless sometimes one person could handle two characters. The people who maneuver the dolls were like animators at a desk, they just had a different technique. It's still one frame at a time.”

Those figures could act. 

“Remember there are people who are acting as an actor that are motivating and moving the characters. They're just like someone who was animating early Disney films like 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarves'….Those early animators would get into an early film and take over the character themselves, and draw them in front of a mirror by making faces. Animagic is very similar in that way…. Usually I was there and I would talk to them and then they would take my direction and hopefully recreate that in their character. In many cases, of course, they did. That's why they're as good as they are.”

Rudolph was a girl.

“The voice of Rudolph is done by Billie Mae Richards… [who] at that time was a 40-year-old woman. She had a husky voice, somewhere between a girl and a boy. It was perfect. Also, she was an established actor so she knew exactly what she was doing. We used her in other films, as the voice of young boys.”

Burl Ives wasn’t the first Sam the Snowman narrator.

“We had recorded the soundtrack for Rudolph with a group of voice artists in Canada, like a radio show. You do the voice track before you do the animation. But you do do the characters and the storyboards. Animation then is synchronized to how they speak. So we created their voices and told them what we wanted.

We had an actor who did Sam the Snowman. Afterwards, we realized we needed and wanted Burl…. We arranged to have him rerecord all those sections. We then cut him in and took the other actor out. And we had a star.”

Paging Joseph Campbell: the special has a mythic message.

“When Santa leaves and goes on his big ride, he stops at the Island of Misfit Toys and picks up the toys and fulfills their desire. Earlier on, Rudolph and Hermy consider themselves misfits, Rudolph because of his nose, and Hermy because they laughed at him because he wanted to be a dentist, not making toys. And so in their trying to escape from where they were, they came upon this island and they found these characters there who are all misfits....

Kids have problems, whatever they may be. And to see other characters that also have problems, they can associate with them. And when the characters are relieved of their problems by their own actions, like Rudolph became the lead because he was very needed and he fulfilled a big role. Hermy became the dentist because he conquered Bumble. Kids love to see someone of their own stripe, their own age or their own inferiority achieve things. It makes them feel good. I think that's probably the reason these films last so long, because in all our films, that happens. The bad guy becomes the good guy at the end. He's reformed, and the underdog fulfills his quest.”

To find out more, visit our show page. Happy holidays from all of us at the Archive of American Television!

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2 comments about "Lighting Up TV Screens For 48 Years: A Brief History Of Rudolph".
  1. Jonathan Hutter from Garrand , December 18, 2012 at 4:42 p.m.
    Heresy. Rudolph should never go away. However, it is an interesting idea to modernize the animation. I think the voice characterizations are so perfect though, it would be like doing a remake of...oh...Psycho?
  2. Jeff Rutherford from Jeff Rutherford Media Relations, LLC , December 19, 2012 at 11:32 a.m.
    Karen, thanks for this article. I'm a long-time Rudolph fan, and I've enjoyed watching the show with my kids.