All Aglow Over Rudolph and Friends
Oak Lawn man is the official historian of Rankin/Bass beloved TV holiday classics.
Rick Goldschmidt was watching Santa Claus Is Coming to Town on network TV a few weeks ago when we called to talk to him about being the official Rankin/Bass historian, but it was the same old crummy print they've been showing for years.
"It wasn't even the restored version on Blu-ray," Goldschmidt lamented. "They cut out songs and lines, but the Rankin/Bass logo led right into Grey's Anatomy. It's good to see the Rankin/Bass name still out there."
Since the 1990s, Goldschmidt has studied the endurance and popularity of the creations of Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass, a couple of animator/producers best known for their iconic seasonal television specials Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman and The Little Drummer Boy.
Always fascinated by Rankin/Bass's stop-action animation, Goldschmidt went from fan to writer, penning the authorized biography of Rankin and Bass's Videocraft International Ltd. studio that churned out 16 holiday-themed animated specials between 1964 and 1987. Goldschmidt's coffee-table book The Enchanted World of Rankin/Bass, originally published by Tiger Press, sold out of two printings in 1997 and original printings are much sought by collectors.
Today, the historian-musician who lives in a toy-filled house in Oak Lawn publishes The Enchanted World of Rankin/Bass on demand himself, which he sells on his blog of the same name. His second book, (The Making of) Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, also quickly sold out.
"I gave a few of the original copies to the Oak Lawn Library," Goldschmidt said. "They should still be there if they haven't been stolen."
Not a Couple of Misfits
Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass had been approached by other writers who offered to write a history of the making of their Animagic holiday specials based on American pop standards, but something about Goldschmidt and his sincerity struck a chord in the animators.
"I always loved the shows. My parents made a point of turning them on for us during the holidays," Goldschmidt said. "It was something our family could watch together. They get you into the holiday spirit."
An aspiring illustrator just out of college, Goldschmidt had become friendly with Mad Magazine illustrator Paul Coker Jr., who worked on the 1964 Rudolph special. Coker put Goldschmidt in touch with Rankin and Bass.
"Nothing was ever written about Rankin/Bass in length," Goldschmidt said. "(Coker) gave me Arthur Rankin's phone number and I told him I wanted to do a book. Arthur probably heard that from a dozen people before me, but they never followed through."
The Making of Rudolph
Rankin employed the cream of the entertainment industry to help craft the wholesome family holiday special that delved into the back-story of the little reindeer and his "non-conformity."
The animator persuaded his neighbor, Johnny Marks, a Jewish-American songwriter who specialized in Christmas songs, to provide the songs for the Rudolph special. Marks had penned "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," as well as such other holiday standards including "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," "Rockin' 'Round the Christmas Tree," and "Run Rudolph Run," that became hits for Gene Autry, Bing Crosby, Brenda Lee and Chuck Berry.
"He had a real knack for making things sound bouncy and evoke the holiday spirit that not many composers can do," Goldschmidt said.
Marks feared that a children's Christmas special would overexpose his breadwinning hit "Rudolph," but Rankin not only convinced him to allow him the rights to the song, Marks was able to give feet to another of his modestly successful holiday songs, "Holly Jolly Christmas." The song soared like a nuclear missile up the charts after it was recorded by Burl Ives.
Rankin had a vision for how he wanted the story of Rudolph to look and feel. Knowing of the Japanese's knack for stop-action animation, Rankin sought out the talents of the leading Japanese stop-action animator Tadahito Mochinaga. Rudolph took 18 months to make, the bulk of work done in Japan by Mochinaga's Top Craft studio.
Because the Canadian radio actor's union had agreed to a two-year buyout, Rankin was able to cast Canadian radio actors to voice Rudolph, Rudolph's girlfriend Clarice, Hermie the Elf, Donner and Santa at scale. Billie Mae Richards, whose voice lives on in immortality, was cast to voice Rudolph. (Richards passed away this year.)
"Rudolph was really a global production. People don't realize that because it's become such a part of American pop culture," Goldschmidt said. "In the early days, Rankin/Bass hired all Canadian actors and actresses because it was cheaper. Canada did radio longer than the United States, which had turned to television, and knew how to bring characters to life in the imagination through vocalization."
Premiere of Rudolph
Debuting on the General Electric Fantasy Hour on Dec. 6, 1964, the meticulously animated Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was viewed as "state-of-the-art" by its young baby boomer audience, and it continues to endure 47 years later.
Although Rudolph was produced in color and aired on NBC's "in living color" network, most Americans watched the show in black and white. The special was showcased around the latest GE appliances designed to make housework easier and more convenient for the modern American woman than her mother and grandmother.
The 1964 cut of Rudolph that concluded abruptly with no resolution of the fates of the defective toys living on the Island of Misfit Toys, included Rankin/Bass-animated, black-and-white commercials starring three of the minor elf characters hawking GE hairdryers, vacuum cleaners, toaster ovens and space-saving can openers with built-in knife sharpeners.
Goldschmidt searched years for the original 1964 cut with the original GE commercials that featured Hermie's abusive elf boss playing an iron, which he calls "the holy grail" for serious Rankin/Bass aficionados. He still keeps in touch with Rankin and Bass, whom he calls family.
"I've had nothing but a positive experience with all of these guys the whole time I've been doing this," Goldschmidt said.
While many mistakenly categorize the Rankin/Bass stop-action technique for "claymation," the models used were actually made out of wood and Latex, with bendable wire limbs. The models were meticulously bent, posed and photographed to create three-dimensional movement. Professional doll makers designed human clothing scaled down to miniature size for the figures.
Goldschmidt has sold most of his Rankin/Bass memorabilia, including the model for Sister Theresa, the narrator character voiced by Angela Lansbury in The First Christmas.
"She went on tour in the Chicago area with the restored Santa Claus and Rudolph," said Goldschmidt, who sold the model to a collector who promised to restore it.
In addition to his books, Goldschmidt helped design the Enesco line of the Rudolph-inspired licensed ornaments and figurines. He continues to blog about Rankin/Bass and their Videocraft International studio, documenting the history of the famed studio in the pre-computer era of animated special effects that heavily influenced new generations of animators, including Pixar. He's also signed a deal for a third book, The Rankin/Bass Most FAQ.
Earlier this month, Goldschmidt was interviewed on the History Channel's The Story of Christmas. The producers spent two hours last summer querying Goldschmidt, but only 11 seconds of his interview made the final cut.
"Rankin/Bass should have figured in more greatly because I'm watching a show called Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," Goldschmidt said. "They own the story of Santa, as far as I'm concerned. These characters all came from Rankin/Bass shows and before that in songs and storybooks."