A Christmas television classic grows in Greenwich Village

A Christmas television classic grows in Greenwich Village
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer as conceived by Rankin/Bass.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer as conceived by Rankin/Bass.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer as conceived by Rankin/Bass.

Chances are you are familiar with the timeless Christmas special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which has played on television every holiday season since it first aired in 1964 on the General Electric Fantasy Hour on NBC. But what you might not know is the role Greenwich Village played in the creation of this holiday classic.

The classic Christmas tune Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was written by Greenwich Village composer Johnny Marks. Marks’ brother-in-law Robert L. May first developed the plotline about a reindeer named Rudolph for a Christmas coloring-book promotion while a copywriter for the Montgomery Ward department store. On May’s suggestion, Marks turned the story into a song, which was recorded by Gene Autry in 1949 and was an overwhelming success.

Burl Ives (left) and Johnny Marks (right) pose with the sheet music from Rudolph.

Burl Ives (left) and Johnny Marks (right) pose with the sheet music from Rudolph.

So how did Rudolph become a television special?

Johnny Marks lived next door to television and advertising producer Arthur Rankin, Jr. on West 11th Street. Rankin, along with his partner Jules Bass (who just so happens to be a graduate from New York University), had produced several advertising campaigns and one television special for General Electric. They had the idea to create a Christmas special and thought General Electric would be a good sponsor. Rankin turned to his West 11th neighbor Johnny Marks, hoping to adapt his hit song about Rudolph into an hour-long special. While initially hesitant, Marks eventually agreed and even wrote additional songs for the special, including “A Holly Jolly Christmas” and “The Most Wonderful Day of the Year.”

While Greenwich Village incubated Rudolph, the special was truly international. The songs and voice-overs were recorded in Toronto, and the stop-motion animation was completed in Japan. The team of Rankin and Bass went on to produce other classic Christmas specials, including Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, and The Little Drummer Boy, in addition to television series and non-holiday themed specials. I like to think this much creativity had to come from the influence of Greenwich Village.

Arthur Rankin, Jr. (at piano) leads the voice cast of Rudolph.

Arthur Rankin, Jr. (at piano) leads the voice cast of Rudolph.

Thanks to Rick Goldschmidt at The Enchanted World of Rankin/Bass for research and images.

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Sheryl
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Sheryl Woodruff was GVSHP's Senior Director of Operations until December 2014.

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2 comments on “A Christmas television classic grows in Greenwich Village
  1. Sheryl Nick Fritsch says:

    Nice piece, but I was a little surprised to see that the RNR’s producer was not mentioned, the late Larry Roemer. I knew Larry in the 80s when I worked at Magno Sound & Video. He was full of stories about the creation of the ground-breaking, stop-motion animation, and hilarious tales of working with the Japanese production team.

  2. Sheryl Sheryl says:

    Nick, you are quite right. I left out a lot of the amazing talent that worked on RNR. Larry Roemer, Maury Laws, Romeo Muller, and Kizo Nagashima, not to mention all the fabulous voice talent. I hope you will grant me some creative license — I always loved this special and when I recently discovered that Arthur Rankin and Johnny Marks were neighbors on West 12th Street, I had to share it.

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