Obit of the Day: Co-Creator of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Come Christmas time it’s difficult to find a television special not created by Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass. Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, The Year Without a Santa Claus, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, The Little Drummer Boy were all created by the duo who first began working together in 1955.
Mr. Rankin and Mr. Bass did not make a foray into animation immediately, taking five years to develop their first series, The Adventures of Pinocchio (1960). But their big break came in 1962 when General Electric hired the pair to create a new Christmas special for the company to sponsor on network television.
They decided to create a stop-motion animation version of “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” a 1949 Christmas song sung by Gene Autry. Mr. Rankin remembered that his one-time neighbor in New York, Johnny Marks, had written the song*, and asked him for permission to make the special. Mr. Marks agreed but was worried about the quality of the product.
With rights in hand, Rankin and Bass began bringing Rudolph to life. Having studied stop-motion animation in Japan under Ted Mochinaga, Mr. Rankin thought the technique would translate perfectly to the small screen. They called their technique “Animagic.” Using small puppets (Rudolph was 5 inches tall) made of wood, wire, and wool, it took one year to produce the television show, which adapted the famous song and added several new characters including Hermie the Elf and Yukon Cornelius.
It aired for the first time on Sunday December 6, 1964 at 5:30 p.m. on NBC. The response was overwhelming. This December will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the show that is the longest-running Christmas special on television^.
With the success of Rudolph, Rankin/Bass would produce several dozen more movies and television shows using stop-motion and traditional animation.
Beyond the Christmas shows, the two men produced a feature-length Animagic movie in 1967, Mad Monster Party, which received a lukewarm reception. Their traditionally animated films received greater critical acclaim. Rankin/Bass was the first company to produce The Hobbit (1977) as a television film for ABC.
Another of their more successful films for the big screen was a 1982 production of The Last Unicorn, based on the book by Peter Beagle. The film starred Alan Arkin, Jeff Bridges, Mia Farrow and Angela Lansbury.
But television was their main medium. Besides additional holiday specials (Here Comes Peter Cottontail narrated by Danny Kaye, for instance), Rankin/Bass produced traditional cartoons for children. They were not as successful as their Christmas shows. Short-lived animated versions of The Osmonds and The Jackson 5ive on ABC were made in the 1970s but neither lasted more than a full season.
The producers had a hit on their hands in 1985, though, when they introduced Thundercats to TV viewers through syndication. The series which followed human-cat hybrids lead by Lion-O ran for five seasons and 130 episodes and has become a pop culture icon for Generation X.
Arthur Rankin, who was the son of vaudevillians, died on January 30, 2014 at the age of 89. At the time of this post, Jules Bass is still living.
Sources: NY Times, LA Times, IMDB.com, and Wikipedia
(Image of Hermie and Rudolph is courtesy of artandseek.net and copyright CBS and Rankin/Bass Productions)
* The song was based on a short story written in 1939 by Mr. Marks’ brother-in-law Robert L. May who created Rudolph as a holiday campaign for Montgomery Ward department stores.
^ There are three other Christmas specials on television that were originally broadcast in the 1960s: How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966), A Charlie Brown Christmas (1967), and Rankin/Bass’ own Frosty the Snowman (1969).
Also of interest:
Larry Mann, the voice of Yukon Cornelius, died on January 6 2014
Lou Scheimer, founder of Filmation which produced Fat Albert and He-Man, died in October 2013