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‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ broadcast brings back memories

Recently, my daughter Rachel called me up to tell me that the old classic Rankin/Bass production of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” would be coming on TV in that next half-hour. I assured her that I would watch, later calling her after it was over so that she and I could comment on our favorite scenes once again. I think it was important to Rachel that although separated by distance (she lives in Winston-Salem), and both of us also separated by time from that point in life of her first watching, I would be concurrently watching it with her again, as did the three of us (later four, with her younger brother Jeremy) when Rachel was a very young child.

The look of the old stop-motion photography, using three-dimensional figures, made it look more real than the drawn two-dimensional figures of the usual cartoon. Speaking of two dimensions, I remember making a “flip-book” cartoon at Granite Quarry School in my youth, and just the other day, some present-day children made them at the museum where I work.

Whenever I see Rudolph’s three-dimensional narrator snowman, voiced-over by Burl Ives, I recall similar-looking, three-dimensional snowmen made of wood, built into a music box which was always brought out with the Christmas decorations in my boyhood home. When the key on the bottom of this music box was turned, “Silent Night” was played. If the key were turned to the maximum, the last couple of turns became very difficult, just like the furthest winding of a watch (watches “back in the day”). After such extreme winding, Silent Night’s tempo would start out as a sprightly, dancing “allegro,” eventually reaching, at the end of its winding down, something approximating a Gustav Mahler adagio.

At the time, I had a couple of baby Red-Eared Slider turtles, purchased from the department store (until sales of such were later outlawed, due to the inherent danger of salmonella to children who forgot to wash their hands after playing with them). After winding, I would set the juvenile turtles on the music box, in between the snowmen and some accompanying little wooden fir trees (those carved trees, of course, more related to wood than are snowmen) and give them a short ride. When the snowmen and fir trees came to a stop, the living passengers’ necks and heads would be craning still for just a second or two to see what might be coming up “just around the bend.” Disclaimer: In doing this back then, no turtles were harmed (as far as I could tell).

When I recently watched “Rudolph” again, I realized that it seemed a little different than when my late wife Diane, Rachel and I had watched it when she was 5 years old. There it was, being broadcast again as it originally had been on the TV screen, but I experienced some new reactions within me regarding what I had seen before.

Not wanting to remember Santa as a “jerk” had made me forget what a jerk he really was in his initial treatment of Rudolph, until he discovered that Rudolph could be useful to him.

Initially having felt sorry mostly for Rudolph, I also now felt sorry for Hermey the elf, dreaming of being a dentist but doomed to the drudgery of the assembly line, which although it being Santa’s assembly line still reminded me of the old 1960s song “Little Boxes,” but in this case, those doing the assembly also shared a sameness with the repetitive sameness of that which they were assembling. I’d better move on from this particular line of thought regarding the workers and the factory owner, in fear of perhaps sounding “Trotsky-esque” (and besides, thinking of Trotsky always seems to bring on a headache).

I felt for Rudolph and Hermey and was a little disgusted with Santa, but my favorite in all of this was someone (something) who was definitely “outside the box”: “Bumble” the Abominable Snow Monster! In a way, he was kind of like the old neighbor whom everyone feared, and no one understood in the movie “Home Alone.” I felt sorry for “Bumble” when Hermey pulled all of his teeth, but hopefully, the elf (upon his completion of dental school) will make him a full set of replacements (my dentist has a partial in mind for me). The elf will probably make him a set of “uppers” and “lowers,” not consisting totally of pointed canines as before, but with human “dentures” resembling those worn by Barney, which still irks me to this day, because little boys, then and now, are enamored of T-Rex in spite of (or perhaps because of) his eight-inch “sabres.”

When we read a great “classic” early on, we often return to it later in life to find that some things seem to have changed from before, in spite of those printed words still being set in those same sentences, with the same punctuation, it being we who have become “altered.” Such is the case with these celluloid, seasonal “great books” with which we also grew up, and open up again, with the turn of the knob (before the advent of the remote). It is said that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and each of those classic filmed scenes in “Rudolph,” “Frosty” and others is comprised of a multitude of incremental pictures, making a grand total of the input of possibly thousands of words from our imagination.

Next year, when Rudolph’s “pages” are again turned, I hope to get a call from Rachel beforehand, telling me which channel and what time. Afterward, we will talk once more as to the scenes which impressed us the most, just like those who read and compare notes on a classic, beloved, revisited book.

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