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Rudolph And The Rankin-Bass Holiday Empire: Facts And Trivia

Entertainment | December 6, 2020

Rudolph and Hermey, the dentist. Source: (IndieWire)

Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer and other Rankin/Bass TV specials, including Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town and The Year Without A Santa Claus, are holiday shows that have become must-watch traditions within our own lifetimes. Rudolph, dramatizing the song by Johnny Marks, first aired in 1964, introducing children not only to Rudolph and Santa but Hermey the Elf (who wanted to be a dentist), Yukon Cornelius, and Bumble the Abominable Snow Monster.

Rankin/Bass Productions began as Videocraft in 1955, when Arthur Rankin, who had been an art director at ABC teamed up with Jules Bass and began making commercials. On September 14, 1960, they began making cartoons and changed their name to Rankin/Bass Productions. One of their first "Animagic" productions was The New Adventures of Pinocchio. All told, they created 18 different Christmas specials of varying length between 1964 and 1985, although they did create more than just Christmas specials.

The Story Began As A Store Promotion

The cover of one of the original promotional books from Montgomery Ward. Source: (AbeBooks)

In 1964, Rankin/Bass created Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which was adapted from Robert L. May’s story of the same name as well as the song. May worked for Montgomery Ward in Chicago, and when his boss asked him to create a promotional item to be given away at Christmas, he wrote a poem, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."  May asked his brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, to write the song that accompanied the book. Eventually, Marks sent it off to music promoters to find someone to record it. Although he was hesitant at first, Gene Autry recorded the song, which became one of Autry’s biggest hits. Then came the special, created for NBC originally, and remaining there until 1972, when it moved to CBS.  

Creating The Show

Source: (Mid Century Style Magazine)

"Animagic" animation was stop-motion animation, created using puppets, over 200 of them for Rudolph. The puppets were small, with Rudolph measuring just four inches. The Abominable Snow Monster of the North -- "Bumble" for short" -- was the largest of the puppets, towering over the others at 14 inches. The puppets’ heads and torsos were carved of wood, as it was a lighter material to work with. Their joints were made of lead and copper wire, making them bendable and able to stand. In Rudolph’s case, his body was made of wool that was dyed brown and his eyes were made of leather. Each puppet was moved and two frames were shot; this took 2/25 of a second of the film. Of course, they didn’t have CGI at that point, so when reindeer and other puppets needed to fly, the effect was accomplished by suspending them from wires.

And Burl Ives Makes It Complete

Sam the Snowman. Source: (Pinterest).

Production of Rudolph took place in Japan, lasting 18 months. The show expanded significantly on May’s book and Marks' song, adding much more nuance to Rudolph's personal journey. Additionally, the show introduced secondary plotlines featuring characters Yukon Cornelius, Bumble, Hermey the elf who wants to be a dentist, and the Island of Misfit Toys, among others. As a result, a fairly simple song about a reindeer became a complex narrative with numerous sympathetic and amusing characters. To top it off, Rankin and Bass brought in Burl Ives to voice Sam the Snowman, the narrator. Sam was designed specifically to look like Ives.

Santa Has To Keep His Promise

Why don't we fit in? Source: (Pinterest).

When Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer aired in 1964, viewers had a big complaint: Why didn't Santa return to the Island of Misfit Toys to collect them? He just left them there forever? Rankin/Bass amended the show for the 1965 broadcast, adding a scene in which Santa did return to pick up the toys, which then parachuted out of the sleigh. Because of the additional footage, some scenes had to be cut, notably the scene where Yukon Cornelius discovers a peppermint mine. They also changed a song, adding a short tune called “Fame and Fortune.”

Frosty Joins The Holiday Special Parade

Frosty comes to town. Source: (Legends Revealed).

Following the success of Rudolph, Rankin/Bass created The Cricket on the Hearth and a Thanksgiving special, The Mouse on the Mayflower in 1968. In 1968, they also released The Little Drummer Boy, based on the traditional Christmas song of the same name. There was a sequel to this one, based on the song "Silver Bells."

Then, In 1969, they told the story of Frosty the Snowman, with Jimmy Durante narrating and singing. It too was based on a song, which had become a hit when Gene Autry recorded it in 1950. Frosty was not created in Animagic, but rather with hand-painted plastic cels as Rankin/Bass wanted to give it a different look, more like a holiday card. The characters were designed by Paul Coker Jr., who worked for Mad magazine, and had been an illustrator for Hallmark cards.   

Santa Gets An Origin Story

Put one foot in front of the other. Source: (Funnyjunk)

The following year, Rankin Bass released another Christmas special, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. In this Animagic special, Fred Astaire narrated as S.D. Kluger, a mailman who answered children’s questions about Santa. Kluger, incidentally, looks a bit like Fred Astaire, if Fred Astaire were a puppet. This special told Santa’s origin story, casting Mickey Rooney as the young Kris Kringle. Kris Kringle met the Winter Warlock, who transformed into a good guy because of toys, and as Kringle became Santa, he had to contend with the Burgermeister Meisterburger, who had outlawed presents. Meanwhile, he fell in love with and married Miss Jessica, the schoolteacher. And all of the elements of Santa’s story were explained.

When Santa Gets Sick

Heat and cold don't play well together. Source: (Reddit)

Mickey Rooney returned as Santa Claus in 1974, in The Year Without a Santa Claus. This show was based on the book by Phyllis McGinley. Santa came down with a cold and decided that he wouldn’t be delivering presents, so Mrs. Claus sends out two elves, Jingle and Jangle, to find proof that people still care about Santa. The two elves head out with Vixen, the youngest reindeer and have an encounter with the Heat Miser, who is battling with his brother, the Snow Miser. For Christmas to happen, it has to snow in Southtown.    

Rudolph Saves The New Year As Well

Rudolph's new friends. Source: (Pinterest)

Before Rudolph could return, 1975 brought a Rankin/Bass original, The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow. In 1976, Rudolph returned in Rudolph’s Shiny New Year, along with another appearance by Rooney as Santa Claus. Red Skelton narrates as Father Time, who, of course, bears a resemblance to Skelton. This time, Rudolph has another opportunity to save the day: he has to find the missing baby New Year. Happy, the baby, is terribly upset about his unusual ears and is in danger of the villain, Eon the Terrible, who wants to catch Happy so that he can live forever. Rudolph is assisted by a caveman, a Medieval Knight, and, naturally, Benjamin Franklin since this is a show that deals with the passage of time.  

The Final Christmas Special

Santa's story as you've never seen it before. Source: (Pinterest)

Rudolph's Shiny New Year was a pretty bizarre show, but it's not the most bizarre -- that would be the final Rankin/Bass Christmas special, The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. This special created an alternative origin story for Santa, in which Santa was raised by a lioness and a fairy. If you compare it to the original Animagic shows, you can see just how far the medium came. If you wonder why this Christmas story looks so Dark Crystal/Lord of the Rings, consider the source material -- this special is based on a book of the same name by L. Frank Baum, the author who gave us the flying monkeys and other scary threats in The Wizard of Oz.

Tags: Animation | Burl Ives | Christmas | Rankin Bass | Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer | TV In The 1960s

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Cyn Felthousen-Post

Writer

Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!