By Christian Holub
November 19, 2020 at 01:00 PM EST
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Credit: Classic Media/CBS

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has aired on TV every single year since 1964, making it the longest-running TV special in American history. Given the rise of home media in the decades since, it's safe to say the stop-motion movie about a plucky reindeer with a shiny nose has been seen by countless Americans.

The secret to Rudolph’s success was upstart production company Videocraft International, which would later evolve into Rankin/Bass Productions and create dozens more beloved holiday specials. EW caught up with Rankin/Bass historian Rick Goldschmidt to find out how they set the stage for a red-nosed phenomenon.

Credit: 2012 Miser Bros Press/Rick Golds

Step One: The Animation

Japanese animation gained international fame in the 1970s and ’80s, but the industry was advanced enough even in the ’60s that Japanese animators, led by supervisor Tad Mochinaga, brought their skills to the stop-motion puppetry of Rudolph and subsequent Rankin/Bass specials. The production company’s founder Arthur Rankin Jr. “was brought to Japan as part of a delegation, and he knew talent,” says Goldschmidt. “When he saw what they were doing in Japan, he was like, ‘This has got to be used for TV in the U.S., and I’ll do it.’”

Although their names are forever entwined, Rankin and Bass performed different duties; Rankin was the only one who traveled to Japan and worked with the animators there. Goldschmidt wants to make a point about credit for Rudolph while we're at it. Larry Roemer is listed as the director of Rudolph, but Goldschmidt believes the credit rightly belongs to the Japanese team. 

“Larry Roemer did not direct Rudolph. He was a business partner who had an in at NBC, and he got the special on TV, so Arthur [Rankin] gave him the director’s credit,” Goldschmidt says. “But really the director of Rudolph was Tad Mochinaga. They gave a bigwig the credit instead.”

Credit: Classic Media/CBS

Step Two: The Writing

The original “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” song was written by Johnny Marks, who contributed several more songs to the TV special. But it was Rankin/Bass mainstay Romeo Muller Jr. who wrote out the story and crafted the show’s most memorable characters, like wannabe-dentist elf Hermey.

“Romeo [wrote]for Jack Benny and famous radio shows,” says Goldschmidt. “That’s why Rudolph has lasted 56 years: They hired people with experience.”

Muller’s experience on Return to Oz, the previous Rankin/Bass TV special, helped inform the most memorable setpiece in Rudolph: The Island of Misfit Toys, where our hero finds understanding alongside other oddities. The only one whose disfigurement is unclear is the female doll. 

“A lot of people ask about the doll, it’s probably the biggest question from all of my time doing this,” Goldschmidt says. “Arthur just made a joke out of it, and would say she was cast away by her mistress and they didn’t have Prozac at the time.”

Credit: Classic Media/CBS

Step Three: The Casting

Can you imagine a Rudolph without Burl Ives’ Sam the Snowman? The actor was a late addition to the production, and prior to his entrance, iconic songs like “Silver and Gold” were to be sung by Yukon Cornelius actor Larry D. Mann. Ives added star power, and the songs became hits.

“Burl was an important part of Rudolph because he was so perfect for that storytelling and singing,” Goldschmidt says. Indeed, there’s a reason you won’t go a year without hearing “A Holly Jolly Christmas” a few times (at least).

To read more on holiday film favorites, order the December issue of Entertainment Weekly or find it on newsstands now. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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