Fans of the beloved television special “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” eagerly await the annual appearance of the little reindeer, who first flashed his nose 55 years ago, in 1964. The show has a strong Illinois connection.
Burl Ives, an Academy Award-winning actor and folk singer who provided the voice of Sam the Snowman, was born on June 14, 1909, near the tiny locale of Hunt City (pop. 100) in Jasper County in southeastern Illinois. Ives died on April 14, 1995, and is buried in Mound Cemetery near Hunt City.
Sam, the nattily attired snowman with plaid vest, derby hat, and watch chain, serves as a master of ceremonies for the show, and his narration tells the story of the misfit Rudolph, a red-nosed reindeer who is scorned by other characters. However, Rudolph winds up as the hero, as his bright beak helps Santa pierce the thick fog of a stormy Christmas Eve.
The one-hour special was the masterpiece of Rankin-Bass Productions, which created more than 60 children’s holiday programs for all seasons, as well as Saturday morning cartoons, through 2001. Many of the Rankin-Bass productions were known for its distinctive puppet creations in “animagic,” a “stop-motion” process in which characters move freely, without visible strings, in front of striking, whimsical backdrops.
Rankin-Bass shows frequently hired a contemporary television or stage star to voice a lead character, which is where Ives came in. An Academy Award winner for Best Supporting Actor in the 1958 movie “The Big Country,” Ives appeared in numerous movies and television shows, but was best known for his vocal talents.
Born to a Scotch-Irish family, Ives was one of seven children of a tenant farmer who gave up agriculture for construction in 1916. Ives was introduced to European and American ballads and folk songs by his mother and his grandmother, who smoked a pipe. At age seven, Ives received his first banjo, playing and singing regularly at square dances and church functions.
Ives enrolled in Eastern Illinois State Teachers College (now Eastern Illinois University) in Charleston in 1927 to major in history and become a sports coach, but later dropped out. According to legend, Ives was sitting in an English class lecture on “Beowulf” during his third year when he realized he was wasting his time. As he left the classroom, the professor made a sarcastic remark at Ives, who slammed the door behind him.
Ives later credited the president of Eastern, Dr. Livingston Lord, with starting his career. The singer recalled that Lord said Ives had “too restless a spirit” to be a teacher. Ives claimed that his “clothes and things were at the fraternity house, but I didn’t want to bother with them. I just went down the road.”
He did just that, wandering the country on foot and on rail through 46 states, working odd jobs and memorizing more than 500 folk songs as he went. He was jailed in Mona, Utah, after performing a song that was viewed by the locals as raunchy.
He landed in New York in 1937 and became a regular on radio programs three years later. Along the way, he became a published author and stage star while cranking out approximately 100 records in folk, country, and pop, becoming one of the most recognizable musical performers of the 1950s and 1960s.
“Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” premiered on NBC on Dec. 6, 1964, and switched to CBS in 1972, where it has aired at least once every December since. The show, the longest-running Christmas special on record, has spawned several sequels, including a New Year’s show in 1975, an animagic movie in 1980, and an animated cartoon in 2001.
The 1964 show included two original songs performed by Ives, “Silver and Gold” and “Holly Jolly Christmas.” Both have become holiday standards.
The show remains a favorite among children and adults alike, and has grown in stature with countless marketing campaigns, stuffed toys, soundtracks, and DVD releases. Interestingly, creators Arthur Rankin, who died in January 2014, and Jules Bass reportedly did not cash in on the phenomenon, as they are said to have sold the rights to the show before the recent marketing bonanzas.
Rudolph has his roots in a 1939 storybook that was part of a promotional effort by longtime retailer Montgomery Ward. The story was written by company employee Robert May (1905-1976), a Chicago resident who is buried in River Grove, Ill. In 1949, Gene Autry debuted the song “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” which sold more than 25 million records.
In 1990, Eastern Illinois University named an art studio after Ives. The university and the town of Newton, in Jasper County, also held ceremonies to honor Ives’ 100th birthday in 2009.
Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville. He can be reached at (217) 710-8392 or email@example.com.