'Rudolph' Christmas special endures for 50 years despite being made on the cheap

"You'll go down in history," wrote Johnny Marks about "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

It's been 75 years since the composer's song became an instant hit, and 50 years since NBC first aired one of the most beloved Christmas specials of all time.

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The hour-long special returns Tuesday on CBS, Dec. 22 on CBC and Dec. 20 on YTV as part of their month-long "Merry 6-mas" package of nightly holiday specials airing at 6 p.m. ET.

The history of the Rankin-Bass stop-motion animated special, like Santa's sleigh, has had its own ups and downs. It reads more like a mystery novel than a holiday classic.

Take the Canadians who supplied the voices of the show's main characters. Paul Soles spoke for Hermey the Elf, the North Pole helper with the kiss-curl who really wanted to be a dentist. Soles, now 84, puts his involvement in the special down to "blind luck."

The Toronto native, who has gone on to a long acting career ranging from "This is the Law" to "Less Than Kind," was already established with a troupe of CBC Radio performers by 1964. His cousin was Bernard (Bunny) Cowan, who, among other things, had been the announcer on "Front Page Challenge." Cowan had assembled a voice cast for two previous animated shows produced by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin Jr., "The New Adventures of Pinocchio" and "Tales of The Wizard of Oz."

Those shows, according to Rick Goldschmidt, author of "The Enchanted World of Rankin-Bass," had been done on the cheap. The New York-based producers were down to taking loans from friends to bankroll their series and chose Toronto's Crawley Films to crank out 130 short episodes of "Wizard. Using Canadian voice actors, it turned out, was a cost-cutting move.

"We were good, but we also worked cheap," says Soles. "This business of residuals was new to our union, which was not quite as strong as SAG or others in the States."

Thus Soles and Billie Mae Richards, who voiced Rudolph, Stan Francis (Santa), Larry Mann (Yukon Cornelius), Carl Banas (the elf foreman), as well as Janis Orenstein, Paul Kligman, Peg Dixon, Corrie Conley and Alfie Scopp, never saw a nickel from the special after the second repeat in 1966 — despite the fact "Rudolph" has never fallen off the annual Christmas TV schedule.

Burl Ives, on the other hand — brought in at the last minute as a headliner to appease NBC and sponsor General Electric — had a much better deal. As Sam the Snowman/narrator, the American folk singer and now his estate continue to cash "Rudolph" cheques each Christmas.

The fate of the voice stars, however, is still better than what happened to the puppets. "Rudolph," like "Pinocchio," was animated in Japan. The bendable puppets, designed in America by Antony Peters, were photographed a few frames at a time to create the stop-motion animation. To promote the special, a full cast set of puppets was shipped from Japan to America and, according to Goldschmidt, put on display at Christmastime at NBC Studios in Manhattan.

Rankin and others placed little value in the puppets. "It was always about the next project for him," says Goldschmidt. When the puppets were returned to Rankin-Bass, they were never stored properly. Some were pitched into dumpsters as the company moved throughout the 1960s and '70s.

Rankin's secretary took a cast set home one Christmas and gave them to nieces and nephews, who played with them under the family Christmas tree. These truly were the original misfit toys. After Christmas, the puppets were stored in an attic. The heat up there was too much for the Abominable Snow Monster and others. Several puppets melted together and had to be thrown away.

Two survived — Santa and Rudolph. One of the grownup nephews of the secretary took the battered remains to the PBS series "Antiques Roadshow," where, according to Goldschmidt, they were "grossly undervalued." Cleaned up a tad and put on eBay, they later fetched close to $10,000.

Goldschmidt put the new owner in touch with Screen Novelties International, which fully restored the dolls. Rudolph's original nose was missing and had been clumsily replaced with a wad of red clay. Santa was missing half his moustache and the white pompom off his hat. Neither puppet could stand. The wire mechanisms tucked inside a layer of Japanese newspaper were replaced. Today, says Goldschmidt, they are valued at around $200,000 — more than double the original budget for the animated special.

Finally, there's the fate of the special itself.

"Rudolph," says Goldschmidt, has been "taking it on the nose" for years by CBS. While the U.S. network is making a big deal out of the 50th anniversary — commissioning promos featuring stars from "The Big Bang Theory" and "Mom" — the version they air is a mess. Scenes are compressed to squeeze the 1964 special into an ad-heavy 2014 timeslot. A song was replaced after the initial NBC airing, and now viewers see Hermey and Rudolph sing "We're a Couple of Misfits" over animation from the replacement song. Words don't match movement. The song lurches and the picture jumps.

"Somebody there did a really crappy job of editing it," says Goldschmidt, who fumes that Christmas specials few watch anymore, such as "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol," are fully restored on Blu-ray while "Rudolph" remains a murky mess. His pleas to the current owners at Dreamworks to restore "Rudolph" and add DVD extras have so far fallen on deaf ears.

The original 1964 version, admits Goldschmidt, wasn't perfect either. He likes the seldom-seen original end credits better, but the names of both Billie Mae Richards and Antony Peters were misspelled.

Soles suggests Rudolph's imperfections may ultimately be part of its lasting appeal. After all, he asks, aren't we all from the island of misfit toys?

"I'm not sure there isn't a soul alive who hasn't, in one way or another, been told over their lifetime that they don't quite measure up," he says. "If you're the last person chosen for a team in public school, if you're the wrong religion, the wrong colour, the wrong nationality, you're made to feel you don't belong. "

And that, says Soles, is why Rudolph remains the most famous reindeer of all. Nobody and nothing is perfect, not even voice actors, puppets or TV specials. And if you don't quite fit in now, says Soles, "there's always redemption."

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Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.

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