The surprising 50-year legacy of 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer'
Canadian voice actors brought characters in stop-motion animation classic to life
Fifty years after bringing the voice of Hermey the elf to life in the TV special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Toronto actor Paul Soles still cherishes his role in the feel-good holiday classic.
Soles was one of several Canadians who provided voices for the U.S. stop-motion animation television special that hit the small screen for the first time on Dec. 6, 1964.
Soles sees several reasons for that endurance, but one stands out.
"Everybody's been to some degree separated out, found wanting, not quite fully fitting in," says Soles, an 84-year-old who remembers not feeling totally accepted growing up Jewish in Toronto.
"Either you're too tall, you didn't make the team, or you were too short or something like that. That's one of the universal elements of the show."
Plus, he says, we're taught that everyone should try to get along, co-operate and get things done.
"One of my favourite elements of the show was the line: "Why don't we be independent together?'" says Soles, slipping briefly into the distinctive lilt of Hermey, the elf who in quite un-elflike fashion wants to be a dentist.
Finding a purpose in life
Hermey and Rudolph are outcasts, yet they still find their way and a purpose in life.
Through it all, Rudolph offers up some child psychology, disguised in the tales of misfit toys and characters who aren't part of the popular crowd.
They were all part of media world much different from the multi-channel, YouTube universe of today. It was a world where radio drama had flourished, but was on the cusp of change.
"This was the golden age of radio theatre and to be part of that pool was an extraordinary privilege," says Soles.
"Toronto had possibly the best pool of English-speaking radio actors, voice actors, which was not surprising given that … our artistic ranks have always been fed by the influx of British actors and Americans."
The voices in that pool caught the ears of New York City-based Rankin/Bass Productions Inc., the producers behind the Rudolph special.
Leaving a legacy
Carl Banas of Toronto did the voice of Foreman Elf. Rudolph was voiced by Billie Mae Richards, a well-known Toronto-born voice actor who died in 2010.
"I'm just so glad that my kids, my grandkids, my great-grandkids and probably my great-great-grandkids will see Rudolph," Richards once said. "What better legacy can you leave than a show that everybody loves?
Rudolph's arrival on the TV scene in 1964 marked the beginning of a three-year run of top-line Christmas shows that have shown their endurance. In 1965, A Charlie Brown's Christmas debuted, followed in 1966 by Dr. Suess' How the Grinch Stole Christmas!
The Rudolph story originated in a 1939 booklet for the Montgomery Ward retail and mail order store. But the TV special, with its distinctive characters and stop-motion animation, had a look all its own.
(Watch a short scene from Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer on Youtube.)
"Whereas Charlie Brown and the Grinch are both traditional cell animation, [the Rudolph characters] look more three-dimensional and that certainly made it unique," says Bill Brioux, a longtime television columnist for Toronto newspapers.
And that look adds to the resonance the show has today, he suggests, particularly for baby boomers.
"Rudolph does look a bit crude and a bit creaky," says Brioux, who was enchanted as a seven-year-old TV viewer when Rudolph arrived in 1964.
"Maybe that's part of the appeal. It certainly is for boomers who are nostalgic about the time before computers took over.
"I think even for young kids seeing it for the first time, it's just really fascinating because it's exotic almost that it's so old-fashioned."
Rudolph's longevity is also reflected in its popularity as a parody, whether through comedy sketches or TV commercials.
Brioux points to a sketches by Saturday Night Live, and MADtv's "Raging Rudolph." In spirit, MADtv's rendition is not at all like the TV special.
"It was as if Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was directed by Martin Scorsese and it is hilarious," say Brioux, recounting scenes of decapitation and an elf's head being put in a vice and his eyes popping.
"It's violent and horrifying but it's quite funny as a parody of this thing, so the fact that these shows can survive parody means they really do endure on their own merit."
The "real" Rudolph, of course, is a much tamer show. It's one that Soles continues to watch with fondness each year, just to see if it holds up.
How can you not love the conclusion, he asks. "Rudolph saved the day. Wouldn't we all like to be in a fantasy the person who saves the day and is acclaimed for that?"
(Watch a feature about the 50th anniversary of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer on CBC-TV's The National Dec. 5. Watch Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer on CBC-TV starting at 7 p.m. on Sunday Dec. 14.)