You watch the Santa Clause Parade, every year, but can you name Santa’s reindeer? (And don’t say ‘Olive’, the other reindeer!)
You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen
Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen
But do you recall
The most famous reindeer of all?
Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer was originally written in verse by ad man Robert May for a department store in 1939, long after Clement C. Moore’s poem of 1823, A Visit From Saint Nicholas. In 1949 Johnny Marks adapted the story into a classic song.
Then in 1964, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (CBC, Dec. 15, 8 p.m. and YTV, Dec. 21, 7 p.m.) became one of the most beloved Christmas movies of all time. The holiday special with stop-motion animation tells the story of a misfit reindeer with a shiny nose. After 47 years, Rudolph still shines bright in the TV ratings, able to ‘sleigh’ competition like Glee. In a recent poll, Rudolph won by a nose over Charlie Brown as favourite holiday special. Yes, “misfits have a place, too.”
Reindeer are deer from the Arctic and Subarctic, also known as caribou in North America. (Rudolph must be at least one ‘quarter’ Canadian. Just look at his portrait on the back of a 25 cent piece!) Rudolph lives near the North Pole, in ‘Christmas Town’, somewhere north of the Yukon. There are Northern Lights and a prospector named Yukon Cornelius who mentions “this side of Hudson’s Bay.” With the exception of Burl Ives, the cast for the production came from Toronto’s radio talent. While the animation was done in Japan, the soundtrack was recorded in a studio near Yonge Street.
It may come as a surprise that Rudolph was voiced by a woman, credited slyly as ‘Billy’ Richards. Billie Mae Richards was born in Toronto on Nov. 21, 1921 and passed away in 2010. In a 2004 radio interview, Richards said, “People are amazed to hear that the most famous reindeer of all has a doe behind the glow. I don’t think I was given the name Billie for nothing. My father wanted a boy!”
Richards started show business early as ‘Toronto’s version of Shirley Temple’. During the Second World War, she entertained troops and raised money for the war effort. She was a dancer in the 1946 film Meet the Navy. Richards enrolled in Lorne Greene’s Academy of Radio Arts and did radio acting at the CBC for 25 years.
“Everybody that heard me gave me a part as a child.”
She played the farm boy in W. 0. Mitchell’s Jake and the Kid. She credited the CBC for Rudolph coming to Toronto.
“Our radio didn’t die when television came along, we had the voices for radio.”
The CBC celebrated its 75th anniversary in November.
A grandmother of 12, Richards was happy to be known as the original voice of Rudolph. She was only paid $350, no residuals, and didn’t get much ‘doe’ for her ‘buck’, but she didn’t mind.
“What better legacy can you leave than a show that everybody loves?”
Yes, she will go down in ‘her-story’! Who hasn’t been made to feel like an outcast just because they are different?
For a rather bleak take on Christmas, watch for Sarah Polley in her first feature film role in One Magic Christmas (1985) (CTV, Dec. 17, 8 p.m.). The family home was located on Ellendale Drive near Birchmount Avenue in Scarborough.
Some other seasonal movies filmed in Toronto are A Christmas Story (1983) (CBC Dec. 22, 8 p.m.), The Santa Clause (1994) (CBC, Dec. 19, 8 p.m.) with polar bears at the Zoo and for the cynical at heart, The Ref (1994). Nothing says the holidays like a killer loose on Christmas Eve. NOT for the kids, Black Christmas (1974) features scenes at Centre 55.
As Burl Ives sings in Rudolph, have A Holly, Jolly Christmas!