Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer was created by Robert L. May in 1939 as part of his employment with Montgomery Ward department stores. As a way to save money, the retailer had decided to create and distribute its own coloring books and assigned the task to May, who wrote a poem about a reindeer who was ostracised for his glowing red nose but saves Christmas by leading Santa’s sleigh through a thick fog on Christmas Eve.
May’s brother-in-law Johnny Marks adapted May’s story into a song, and it was recorded by Gene Autry in 1949. Autry’s single sold over 2 million copies in its first year, and over 8 million to date. It still ranks as one of the best-selling singles of all time.
A cartoon of Rudolph was produced by legendary animator Max Fleischer in 1947, and re-released with Mark’s song in it. The cartoon stayed more faithful to May’s story than the television version most fans are familiar with. That version, produced by Rankin/Bass, a production company synonymous today with holiday Christmas specials, turned the song into a stop-motion animated TV special, which first aired on Dec. 6, 1964 on NBC.
Marks did not want to do the special at first because he feared the song would become overexposed, according to Arthur Rankin. However, he eventually agreed and even wrote a few other songs on the feature, including A Holly Jolly Christmas, which became a huge hit for singer and narrator Burl Ives.
The story is expanded from the original poem to add a whole new cast of characters, including Hermey the dentist-wannabe elf, prospector Yukon Cornelius, Rudolph’s girlfriend Clarice, the Abominable Snowmonster, a group of misfit toys and narrator Sam the Snowman. In addition, Santa’s sleigh team member Donner is Rudolph’s father. Radio actress Billie Mae Richards, the voice of Rudolph, just passed away in September at the age of 88.
The soundtrack was recorded in Toronto but the actual animations were filmed in Japan. The characters are quite small; Santa is about 8 inches tall and the young version of Rudolph portrayed in the first half of the film is only 4 inches tall. The grown-up Rudolph fits in the palm of your hand and his nose really glows. Because they were constantly posed, the fragile characters broke quickly, so there were several copies of each puppet.
The version played on TV today is slightly different from the special that had been broadcast for decades. In 1998, after a significant restoration project, Rudolph was re-mastered and re-released to include missing scenes and songs, including We Are Santa’s Elves and We’re a Couple of Misfits, that were on the original 1964 special.
Copies of both Santa and Rudolph were found several years ago in storage in the attic of a former Rankin/Bass employee. Because they were in good shape, they were repaired and are now on view at trade shows and conventions.
Today, Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer is the longest running, highest rated television special of all time.
You can watch the original Max Fleischer cartoon right here, and tune in on CBS tonight at 8 p.m. for the classic Rankin/Bass special.