About Christmas TV History

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the original broadcast of everyone's favorite Christmas TV special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by Rankin/Bass. The animated special's influence and impact on Christmas culture is difficult to overestimate. Most of us can hardly imagine Christmas on television before its arrival in 1964. Rudolph is not only referenced as most everyone's first Christmas TV special memory (remember our Christmas in July mini-questionnaire?) but also their favorite.  Those influenced by Rudolph includes myself.  It's easy for me to say that I mostly likely wouldn't have been inspired to research and write Tis the Season TV--the encyclopedia of Christmas on television--without my lifelong attachment to Rudolph. What is it about Rudolph that makes it a common experience for us all?

Let us not forget that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer existed before the 1964 Christmas TV special.  The shunned creature was first penned by Robert L. May in 1939 as a Christmas giveaway booklet for the Montgomery Ward store.  Yes--Rudolph celebrates his 75th birthday this year as well.  Montgomery Ward eventually gave May the rights back to his story and May's brother-in-law Johnny Marks turned it into a song.  The singing cowboy/actor Gene Autry's 1949 recording of the song Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer went to number one on the music charts--and continues to be one of the most popular Christmas songs each year.  Mark another anniversary: Autry's version of Rudolph celebrates turning 65 years old this year!  So when Rankin/Bass created their animated version in 1964, the popular reindeer was already well-known to adults and children alike.

A summary of the animated TV special is not necessary--is there anyone who doesn't already know the story?  And production details have been meticulously explored in the book by Rick Goldschmidt. I can add that adorable misfits and themes of redemption and acceptance have been repeated in Christmas entertainment ever since.  But what is Rudolph's secret to success?

Rudolph's characters are clearly defined and have immense personality!

Clearly, Rudolph has not one but several clever things going for it.  First of all, Rudolph was created to entertain everyone gathered around the television in 1964.  Let me unpack this a little bit.  Historically, Christmas TV entertainment prior to 1964 consisted of musical variety specials, holiday-themed installments of dramatic anthologies, and Christmas episodes of TV series.  History was made in 1962 when Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol was broadcast--it was the first animated Christmas TV special. Click HERE to see my review of it again. (Although Walt Disney aired animated specials during the holidays on TV, the specials were almost all clips from his previously released films and shorts.)  Original Christmas animation made just for TV viewers had begun with Magoo's Carol, making 1964's Rudolph the second example of what has since become an institution.  And like Magoo's Carol, Rudolph also forwards its animated story with music--catchy songs that capture the emotional content in each scene.

Hands up if you can sing along to "We Are Santa's Elves," "A Holly Jolly Christmas," "There's Always Tomorrow," and "We're a Couple of Misfits?"
Though animation was still considered children's entertainment, Rudolph (and many of these earliest animated specials) were made with enough detail, sophistication, and style to entertain the parents and grandparents watching along with their kids.  Remember--in 1964, most families still gathered around one TV set in the living room.  Families split apart watching separate programming on many different sets and/or devices was not an option yet.  While Rudolph was certainly simple enough to entertain the youngest of viewers, it also offered interest, meaning and emotion to adult viewers as well.

How many of us have experienced a boss that under-appreciates us?

One of the ways Rudolph entertains adults is its eye-catching stop motion animation.  Rudolph wasn't made the same way Saturday morning cartoons were--it is not animated with individual painted or colored cels (think The Flintstones or Bugs Bunny--or even Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol and Frosty the Snowman).  Rudolph comes alive by photographing still figures or puppets with slight variations in each successive photograph to simulate movement.  Rankin/Bass coined their process Animagic but it's an animation technique known as stop motion that's nearly as old as filmmaking itself.  Rankin/Bass' Animagic is not claymation--there is no clay involved.  (However, claymation is also stop motion animation.)  Though the movement by the figures in Rudolph is slightly clunky by today's standards of computer-assisted animation, the images in Rudolph still pop and look amazing.  Nothing quite looks like Animagic--and that's part of Rankin/Bass and Rudolph's continued popularity.  So the look of the 1964 animated classic not only entertains children but it amazes adults as well.

Bumbles bounce--but they're not made of clay!

As a juggernaut of an already well-established character with catchy music and eye-catching animation, it's no wonder that Rudolph experienced high ratings its first years.  Others looking to capitalize on the success of Christmas TV animation soon followed--the very next year debuted A Charlie Brown Christmas, and the following year brought How the Grinch Stole Christmas.  Even Rankin/Bass continued making Christmas TV specials (along with their other animated projects) not the least of which includes Frosty the Snowman, The Year Without a Santa Claus, Santa Claus is Comin' to Town, and The Little Drummer Boy.

The merchandising of this animated TV special grows each year--do you have your Rudolph duct tape?

Rudolph's real success is measured by its longevity.  Rudolph remains the longest running Christmas TV special--it has aired every year on network TV since 1964. Though the television industry and viewership has changed immensely since its debut, Rudolph remains at the top of the list.  Each year Rudolph competes with an ever increasing number of cable TV programming options. Despite being released in home video--first on VHS and now on DVD--most people still want to watch it broadcast on TV.  And, in the history of television, there is nothing to compare to Rudolph's longevity.  Name any other TV special (not just Christmas entertainment) that compares?  The Super Bowl and The Olympics are high rated but the content/coverage is new with each successive broadcast.  Rudolph is the same animated special year after year.

This last point should not be overlooked.  It is exactly because Rudolph is the same year after year that it continues to be as popular as it is.  Christmas is the time of year that we re-enact our favorite traditions.  Watching Rudolph is an American Christmas ritual just like decorating the tree and exchanging gifts.  At Christmas time, we all want to remember the magic of the season and watching Rudolph helps many of us return to our childhoods again.  Though we have visual appetites for new Christmas entertainment, we all want to see our childhood favorites as well.  Rudolph's longevity is supported by the parents, grandparents, and yes--great-grandparents--who share this Christmas tradition with the next generation.  Rudolph turns 50 this year--how long have you been watching?


  1. I was part of your Christmas in July (loved it) questionnaire, and as I stated then, I have watched Rudolph from the beginning. I remember watching it in my mom and dad's bedroom on a little black and white TV. I also remember watching it for the first time in color a year or two later. I still love it and cant wait to watch Rudolph and my main man Hermey this year. Next year, I can't wait to watch it with my now 2 month old grandson.

  2. I can't imagine NOT watching it each year! Have watched for as long as I can remember. Would venture to say I have seen it at least 40 of the 50 years it has aired, and probably a little more than that, but who knows. It is a classic, and hopefully will remain so. I remember being so excited for its one and only airing each year. Something I guess kids these days can't grasp. Was an event. And still is, here and in many other homes, I am sure.

  3. Thanks for your comments and memories. I'm Rudolph's biggest fan as well. I remember crying one December because I missed the once it was broadcast that year. And I was in college! But seriously...Rudolph is still one of those rare TV moments that remains precious even though the special is also available for viewing on DVD. I love that.

  4. I've probably seen it 40 times. I missed a few years when I was in high school and college. But I remember one year my parents recorded it (and several other Christmas specials) off CBS so I could watch it when exams were over! I've made a point to watch Rudolph every year since then. In recent years I've watched the dvd (since the broadcast version gets edited now for commercials), but I usually still tune in for at least a few minutes of the special whenever it's shown on tv.

  5. Classic! "Don't you know? Bumbles bounce!" :)

  6. I saw it the very first time it was on. They ruined it for me a few years ago by taking out the last sequence with Burl Ives singing the song and replacing it with stop-action of Destiny's Child singing it while Snowman Burl just stood there and stared at them. I think they put it back the way it was, but that was a shock to the system.

  7. Does anyone recall if the first broadcast wasn't on Sunday late afternoon, after the GE College Bowl?

  8. Yes. I think it was on Sunday afternoon at least twice, maybe more, pre-empting COLLEGE BOWL, as part of the "GE Fantasy Hour."