As a kid, I always loved watching the animated Holiday specials around Christmas (as well as other holidays throughout the year). These shows were truly special, in that, they were only aired on television once a year and they would pre-empt regular programming. If you weren't able to be in front of your TV at the right time you'd not only miss the show, but you'd have to wait for a whole year for another opportunity. Nowadays they seem to run many of these shows more than one time during the Holiday season. And, once they became available on VHS, and later on DVD, the "special" aspect of the programs was really lost. They're still great shows of course, just not the events they used to be.
While there were many great Christmas shows, it's pretty easy to pick my two favorites: "A Charlie Brown Christmas" (1965) and "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer" (1964). It's impossible to place them in order of first place and second place. I suppose they're both tied for first in my opinion. One thing that set "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer" apart from all the other specials was the fact that it was the only one that not only entertained me and put a bunch of catchy Christmas tunes in my head, but also scared the crap out of me! Yes, I admit that I was afraid of this show as a kid. Well, not the entire show itself, but one specific character...The Abominable Snow Monster of the North.
I was fascinated by all kinds of "unsolved mysteries" as a kid (and still am today for that matter). UFOs, ghosts, The Loch Ness Monster, the statues of Easter Island, spontaneous human combustion and the possibility of "ancient astronauts" guiding the Incas and Aztecs were among the things that interested me. Basically anything that might have been covered in the Alan Landsberg produced, Leonard Nimoy hosted show "In Search of..." was fair game. However, one mystery rose above all others for me. That was the mystery of Big Hairy Monsters (BHMs), such as Bigfoot, Sasquatch and The Abominable Snowman (Yeti). The idea that such creatures had been reported for centuries and could actually exist in our world (where monsters supposedly DON'T exist) was at once fascinating and terrifying to me.
The Abominable Snowman had been a mythical creature for hundreds of years in the Himalayas, but really entered the psyche of the western world in the 1950s when people began trying to scale Mount Everest. In 1951 Eric Shipton photographed giant footprints in the snow made by the Yeti. Then, in 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary also reported seeing similar footprints. The Abominable Snowman became enough of a part of popular culture that a slew of movies about it were released in the mid- to late-1950s. "The Snow Creature" (1954), "Man beast" (1956), "The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas" (1957) and "Half Human" (1958) (an American re-working of the 1955 Japanese movie "Beast Man Snow Man", directed by Ishiro Honda of "Godzilla" fame) are some examples of how pervasive the idea of The Abominable Snowman was at the time. Apparently there was still enough interest in the creature in 1964 to cause the makers of "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer" to add The Abominable Snow Monster of the North into the cast of the show.
I love the story of "Rudolph". While some of the messages of how you should be true to yourself and how people shouldn't deem others "misfits" just because they're a little different may have gone over my head when I was young, I still enjoyed the whole story. The only problem was that the Snow Monster would periodically show up to terrify me. My main defense against this horror was to pull the blanket I was wrapped up in over my eyes and watching the scary scenes through the little spaces in the material. Exactly how I thought this would save me I'm not sure. Maybe I just figured that the monster wouldn't be able to see me. While this might seem like a bit of an extreme reaction to an animated holiday special I have read and heard about others who were similarly petrified by the experience. In fact, one of my best friends confided in me that he had also employed the blanket defense against the fearsome creature.
For the most part "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer" unfolds as a typical animated Holiday special. It, of course, tells the familiar tale of Rudolph that is well-known from the song. The story is fleshed out by the additions of Hermey, the elf who wants to be a dentist instead of a toymaker, the Island of Misfit Toys, and the gold and silver seeking prospector Yukon Cornelius. Not too far into the story we get our first, unexpected glimpse of The Abominble Snow Monster of the North as Donner and Rudolph hide from the creature, who walks past them, leaving giant footprints in the snow. Sam the Snowman (the Burl Ives-voiced narrator of the show) says of the monster: "He's mean! He's nasty! And he hates everything to do with Christmas!" We only see the creature's legs and hear its fierce roaring in this scene, but it's obvious that it's something to be feared.
The monster isn't heard from again for a while. We kind of forget about it as we learn just how much Rudolph and his new friend Hermey don't fit into their respective environments. Eventually they decide to run away together to get away from everyone who insists they're misfits (freaks, non-comformists, odd balls...). Not too long after they leave Rudolph's nose attracts Abominable's attention and we see his face for the first time as he peeks over the mountains. As Sam the Snowman says: "Like I said, the outside world is up to its ears in danger."
I think that, as a kid, I was heartened by the fact that Sam the Snowman (the narrator of the story) was so frightened by the monster's appearance, that even he had to hide behind his umbrella--shaking like a leaf. This made me feel a bit better about hiding behind my trusty blanket.
We get another reprieve from the monster for a bit as we meet Yukon Cornelius, and Burl Ives sings "Silver and Gold". But it's not long after the misfits and Yukon set out together that the Abominable Snow Monster (or the "Bumble", as Yukon call it) really starts chasing them in earnest. It's almost a half-hour into the show and we've only seen the creature three times, but the way they space it out is very effective. The first time we only see its legs. The second time it is peeking over the mountain tops. And this time we see its giant, pointy teeth for the first time as it pursues our heroes.
The monster returns to the background for a while (but is always on everyone's mind thanks to Rudolph's danged shiny nose) as the main characters meet the denizens of the Island of Misfit Toys. But Rudolph strikes out on his own so as to not endanger his new friends. Sam lets us know that the Abominable Snow Monster was always just one step behind Rudolph (wonder what exactly it was that the creature had against that shiny nose?). Rudolph eventually finds that his parents and girlfriend, Clarice, have been captured by the Snow Monster and are being kept in its cave. Rudolph tries to save them just as the monster is about to make a venison snack out of Clarice, but is knocked unconscious by the raging beast.
One of the best lines in the whole show comes when when the Snow Monster is standing menacingly over the four reindeer and Clarice tearfully exclaims: "Oh, why doesn't he get it over with?". Finally, Yukon and Hermey rescue the reindeer and render the monster harmless by pulling out its teeth. At this point it is what Yukon calls "a mighty humble Bumble", and ceases to be the frightful presence that it had been up to that point in the show.
Yukon and the Snow Monster disappear when they fall off a cliff, but they return at the end of the show. They show up at Santa's castle and we learn that Yukon has reformed the Bumble into a docile, friendly critter who only wants a job placing stars on top of Christmas trees--without even needing a step-ladder. Despite having the knowledge of the Abominable Snow Monster's ultimate, cuddly fate at the end of the program, I would still have to cower behind the blanket when it made it's first appearance during the following year's airing of "Rudolph".
The years have passed. I'm now a father myself. My daughter is now very familiar with the story of "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer" herself. I made a point of showing it to her when she was two or three years old. It was very exciting to see her finding the Abominable Snow Monster frightening like I did when I was little. I could recapture a bit of the feeling of the past by watching her experience the joys and terrors of the show for the first time. And, wouldn't you know, she even had to hide behind her own blanket when the creature would make an appearance! I finally broke down and bought "Rudolph" on DVD last year. Possibly as a result of repeated viewings beyond the once-annual airing on TV, she has already grown out of most of her fear of Abominable at the age of only five years old. I don't know exactly when I stopped hiding behind my blanket, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't until I was quite a bit older than five.
Here's my Little Monster enjoying "Rudolph" back in 2008 (age 3)
And here she is hiding from the Snow Monster, just like her dear old Monster Dad!
Thank you Rankin and Bass!
As a bit of an epilogue, it's worth noting that Billie Mae Richards, the voice of Rudolph, just recently died on September 10, 2010.