Friday, 3 December 2004

The 40th Anniversary of the Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer Special

Wednesday CBS broadcast the 40th anniversary airing of the classic TV special Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. I imagine there are a few who think Rudolph originated with the TV special. Still more might think that he originated with the classic song written by Johnny Marks. In truth, his origins go back to a Montgomery Ward advertising campaign.

In 1939 Montgomery Ward asked copywriter Robert L. May to develop a a holiday tale that they could give away to shoppers. May came up with the idea of a reindeer named Rudolph who was an outcast because of his red nose. May's story differed considerably from both Johnny Marks's song and the Rankin Bass TV special. Rudolph was not one of Santa's reindeer and did not grow up at the north pole. Since Rudolph was not one of Santa's reindeer, he did not pick Rudolph out from his herd on that foggy Christmas Eve. Instead Santa found Rudolph when he was delivering presents at Rudolph's home. Santa thought that the nose could help him finish his deliveries in the thickening fog and adopted the reindeer.

Regardless, Rudolph the Reindeer was a hit. Unfortunately, May saw none of the money from the merchandising of the character, whose copyright belonged to Montgomery Ward. Eventually, in 1947, Montgomery Ward's president Sewell Avery gave May the copyright to his creation. May had copies of the original story printed in 1947 and 1948 saw a 9 minute theatrical cartoon based on the tale, produced by the great Max Fleischer. It was 1949 that really brought the Red Nosed Reindeer to fame. May's brother in law, songwriter Johnny Marks wrote the famous song based on the story, changing it considerably in the process. After being turned down by a number of artists, the song was finally recorded by Gene Autry in 1949. It became Autry's biggest hit and the 2nd best selling song of all time (only to "White Christmas").

This brings us to the Sixties and the TV special. In 1955 Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass founded Videocraft International, later renamed Rankin/Bass. Initially they produced television commercials, although they wanted to expand into both feature films and TV shows. In 1960 they did exactly that, producing a series of 130 stop motion cartoon shorts under the title The New Adventures of Pinocchio. They followed this in 1961 with a series of limited animation shorts entitled Tales of the Wizard of Oz, based on the works of L. Frank Baum. As it so happened, Arthur Rankin Jr. was neighbour to Johnny Marks. It was Rankin who suggested to Marks that the song could be adapted as a TV special produced using stop motion animation. Marks was reluctant, fearing that the special could endanger the success of his biggest hit song, but eventually Rankin won him over. In fact, Marks even wrote new songs for the special, including the now classic "Holly Jolly Christmas" and "Silver and Gold." The script, written by Romeo Muller, drew upon Marks's song for inspiration, expanding on the story considerably.

The hour long Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer special took a year to make, with many hours devoted even to the shortest of sequences. While still in production, Rankin pitched the special to sponsor General Electric. General Electric bought time on NBC. It debuted on NBC in 1964 under the title The General Electric Fantasy Hour: Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. The special was an immediate hit and aired on NBC every year until 1972, when it moved to CBS. It has been there ever since. Over the years the special has changed somewhat from when it was originally aired. In the original plot, Santa did not rescue the Misfit Toys from their island. A writing campaign convinced Rankin-Bass to change the ending and it was altered so that Santa did indeed save them. The songs "We Are Santa's Elves" and "We're a Couple of Misfits" were cut in the late Sixties, presumably to make way for commercials. They were restored in 1998.

I don't know when I first saw Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, but I must have been very young. I remember it was still on NBC and GE was still its sponsor. I am guessing it could have been as early as 1967. I do know that I watched it loyally for most all of my childhood. A few years ago I saw it again for the first time in many years and I was impressed. It was one of the few Yuletide specials that an adult can actually enjoy. It has a keen sense of humour (I swear some of the jokes would probably go over a child's head). The story still seems very good to me, supporting the individual's right not to conform to others' expectations. Rudolph gets to pull Santa's sleigh even though his nose makes him different from everyone else. And Hermey the Elf finally gets to be a dentitst instead of having to make toys like other elves. Of course, one of the special's greatest assets is the music. The songs are very good. Indeed, I cannot believe they cut We Are Santa's Elves" and "We're a Couple of Misfits" from the special, even if they wanted to make room for more commercials. Both songs are among my favourites.

At any rate, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer is perhaps my favourite holiday special of all time (A Charlie Brown Christmas might come close) of all time. It seems that it must be other people's favourite as well or else it would not have lasted 40 years. I rather suspect it will last another 40 years and more.

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